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Ivory Coast need a home soil hero but is Victor Osimhen finally ready to spoil the party?

The hosts have momentum after a wild ride at the Africa Cup of Nations – but the Super Eagles have the continent’s best striker

Karl Matchett
Sunday 11 February 2024 08:50 GMT
Victor Osimhen celebrates after Nigeria defeated South Africa in the African Cup of Nations semi-final
Victor Osimhen celebrates after Nigeria defeated South Africa in the African Cup of Nations semi-final (AP)

Hitting the back of the net in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals of a major international tournament should, usually, see strikers head into the final itself brimming with confidence and expectant of leading their country to glory. When that centre-forward has also been one of the game’s elite goalscorers over the past few seasons, even more so. Yet for Nigeria and Victor Osimhen, there’s perhaps instead a lingering sense of frustration, annoyance and unfulfilment, a feeling that he has been thwarted by fractions and unable to be at his explosive best.

Against Angola in the Africa Cup of Nations last eight, his powerful header found the top corner via the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand – only for a VAR intervention to rule him marginally offside. One round later against South Africa, Osimhen’s late tap-in was overruled in even more contentious circumstances, the goal chalked off and a penalty instead awarded at the other end, resulting in extra time, a shootout and eventual Nigeria progression.

Add in Osimhen struggling for full fitness earlier in the competition, a few heavy challenges heading his way and Nigeria’s resolute defence at times meaning they don’t always play in favour of their attacking talents, and it’s clear the Napoli frontman has been somewhat held back by making this his competition – and now his final chance to do so comes against the team whose tournament it actually is. In host terms, at least, as well as in storyline.

Ivory Coast have had the most improbable run; minutes away from a group stage exit, they sacked the manager, regrouped and went again under caretaker Emerse Fae. Late comebacks, stunning winners, penalties... everything has gone their way since and the 1-0 win over DR Congo put them in a first final in almost a decade.

More than that, the team have gone from national embarrassment, through restoring respectability and now to the point of being heroes in a few short weeks.

Ivory Coast are in the final on home soil (AFP via Getty Images)

Since their last Afcon win in 2015, Ivory Coast have failed to qualify for two successive World Cup finals, in Russia and Qatar. They also failed to get past the quarter-finals in three straight Afcon appearances, underperforming squads filled with the likes of Wilfried Bony, Jean Michael Seri, Salomon Kalou, Wilfried Zaha and Eric Bailly.

It all makes the scale of this year’s turnaround all the more notable, while victory in the final itself would bring them level with three Afcon triumphs with their opponents, Nigeria. But sometimes in football, in any sport in fact, fairytale stories don’t have that incredible, improbable, unbelievable-yet-believable Hollywood-style ending.

If that’s to be the case this time around, Nigeria’s frontman is certainly the most likely candidate to play the role of party spoiler. While he only has one goal credited to him at the tournament so far, he has still played a big role in the Super Eagles’ progress, assisting the first of Ademola Lookman’s two goals against Cameroon. Then again, there’s also reason to suggest Osimhen should be in the running for top scorer and has let himself down somewhat: he has the same expected goals tally as Emilio Nsue, who leads the way on five for the tournament and has missed the most big chances at the Afcon, with five. It’s further worth noting he has won both Nigeria penalties, scored by defender William Troost-Ekong, who takes them rather than Osimhen himself.

Osimhen has scored just once at the Afcon (AFP via Getty Images)

Ever the team player, though, Osimhen puts himself through the running, the hard work, even the moments of bravery for those sharing his shirt, on the pitch or off it. An elite striker he is, but he’s far from just a goalscorer, after all. These chances don’t come along too often, though.

Osimhen will lead the line in the final (AP)

It’s 11 years since Nigeria were in an Afcon final, Osimhen then still two years away from starring at the U17 World Cup. Goals and awards have been coming his way for years, but senior titles – trophies – eluded him until only last season when he fired Napoli to a spectacular Serie A success. Less than a year on, he now has the chance to add international honours to his legacy, perhaps leaving him free to decide his future at ease in summer with mission accomplished, for now, on both fronts.

On Sunday in Abidjan, the hosts will be looking for a hero of their own and the candidates have already been wide-ranging since the knockouts started. From Franck Kessie’s efforts from the spot to Simon Adingra’s equaliser out of nowhere and Fae himself galvanising a fractured, directionless group, Ivory Coast’s progress has been a group-wide achievement. If they are to lift the trophy on home soil, one of them will be crowned the nation’s newest favourite in the process.

But Nigeria, and maybe Osimhen more than most, will be very much out to spoil that particular party.

Nigeria v Ivory Coast is on Sky Sports Premier League, Football and Main Event from 7.30pm on Sunday 11 February, kick off at 8pm

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