Nigeria already under pressure as Ivory Coast challenge looms



With just one game played, Nigeria's Super Eagles are already up against it. A loss against Ivory Coast on Thursday would seriously jeopardise their chances of progression to the knockout stage of the Africa Cup of Nations.

A 1-1 draw in an opening game that they were expected to win handily against Equatorial Guinea, has put the three-time champions in a tough spot. Even with an additional four places available for the best third placed teams, second not-win would be less than ideal.

It is not exactly a strange position for the Super Eagles. In 2008, an opening day loss to Cote d'Ivoire was followed by a draw against Mali and the Nigerians advanced with a 2-0 win over Benin, eking ahead of the Malians only on goals difference.

Their title-winning 2013 squad played out two draws in their opening two games and were on the verge of elimination before a 2-0 win over Ethiopia in their final game saw them advance.

Those turnarounds took not just talent, but mental strength and commitment, something that the current squad have been accused of not having, following losses to unfancied opposition.

Midfielder Alex Iwobi told the media that there's only one way forward: "The only way to correct the impression is to win. If you win, all of a sudden, you've given your best and winning is the only way to keep the criticism away.

"We know it's not going to be easy but we'll analyse the team and see what we can do."

Captain Ahmed Musa was a bit more forthright, after hauling the squad into a team meeting following that opening day result: "We want to do our talking on the pitch so that everyone know that we know the importance of what we are doing."

Semi Ajayi and Alex Iwobi train ahead of Nigeria's important AFCON group match against Ivory Coast. FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images
Semi Ajayi and Alex Iwobi train ahead of Nigeria's important AFCON group match against Ivory Coast. FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

The sides have a history

Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire are no strangers at AFCON, and Thursday's group stage meeting will present another instalment in their tournament rivalry. This dates back to 1990 when the Super Eagles bounced back from a 5-1 opening day shellacking by hosts Algeria to beat the Ivorians 1-0.

Two tournaments later they met again, this time in the semifinals of the 1994 competition. Nigeria, boasting some of Africa's best talents at the time, had beaten the Elephants in World Cup qualifying the year before to earn their first ever World Cup ticket and were hugely favoured to win the contest.

A tasty encounter ensued, arguably one of the best in competition history. The game ended 2-2 and the Super Eagles squeaked through after a penalty shootout marathon and went on to claim their second AFCON title win a 2-1 win over Zambia.

In 2006, the sides met in another semifinal game in Egypt and a lone Didier Drogba strike settled things in the Elephants favour. Two years later, it was Salomon Kalou's goal that condemned the Super Eagles to defeat in their opening group game of the tournament in Ghana.

Those two losses meant that by the time the two sides were scheduled to clash in the quarterfinals of the 2013 tournament, many Nigeria fans believed the game to be a certain defeat, and were already making preparations to return home.

But underdogs Nigeria produced a famous win at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg to eliminate the Ivoriens, before going on to win their third championship.

Nigeria beat Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast in the 2013 AFCON quarterfinals, and went on to win the tournament. Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images
Nigeria beat Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast in the 2013 AFCON quarterfinals, and went on to win the tournament. Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images

That defeat still rankles in Ivory Coast, and this meeting is a chance to exact some measure of revenge, especially playing at home. Winger Max Gradel, who was a member of their title-winning 2015 side, says the team are not worried about Nigeria.

"We are prepared and ready," he said at the pregame press conference. "We have a good team, no pressure. We are Cote d'Ivoire and will do our best to win the game.

"It is a special moment for us to play the Africa Cup of Nations in our home, with the support of our people. We will do everything to make the people proud. We have super players in the squad, especially for what they bring to the group. It is a decisive match; it is an important match. We know what we have to do."

For their part the Elephants were not exactly impressive despite the 2-0 opening win over Guinea Bissau, and coach Jean-Louis Gasset expressed some relief at the result.

He told the media: "We are relieved; the pressure was so strong. We had seven players who started the match (against Guinea Bissau) who were playing in their first AFCON. Not everything went well, but we are relieved.

"All the matches we have seen have a different scenario. In the match of Nigeria, they had one or two opportunities against Equatorial Guinea. If you don't make your superiority count, the opponent will become confident. There are no more small teams."

Nigeria's Sadiq Umar of Real Sociedad in action during the Copa del Rey match against CA Osasuna on 17 January, after leaving the AFCON squad due to injury. Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images
Nigeria's Sadiq Umar of Real Sociedad in action during the Copa del Rey match against CA Osasuna on 17 January, after leaving the AFCON squad due to injury. Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images

Nigeria, never without controversy, go into the game under the shadow of questions about how forward Sadiq Umar was replaced by Terem Moffi. Umar was diagnosed with an injury which would supposedly have kept him out for three weeks and had to return to his club.

But the player appears to have made a full recovery and was listed in Real Sociedad's game day squad, playing in the Copa del Rey on Jan. 17.

Coach Jose Peseiro expressed some frustration about the situation: "I see the report from the medical test that he is injured and he cannot play for 15 days.

"We did a meeting with the player and my staff. The player wanted to stay, like me. But on the last day to replace the players, we decided to replace him. I am happy because he recovered well. I am sad because he is not here for help us."

Umar is not the only issue Peseiro has. Standout midfielder Alhassan Yusuf also suffered a knock in that opening day draw and is likely to miss the Côte d'Ivoire game, in what will be a big blow for the Super Eagles.

"When you look at the contributions of Alhassan in the first game, you'd an see that he is a player who has come in and blended very well even though he has not been with us for a long time," said defender Kenneth Omeruo.

It is not all doom and gloom, though.

Kelechi Iheanacho and Terem Moffi are available for selection, and both might help resolve Nigeria's goalscoring issues. The Super Eagles created a plethora of opportunities against Equatorial Guinea, but failed to put them away, with star striker Victor Osimhen among the guilty parties.

But if the Super Eagles can create as many chances as they did, the odds are that Osimhen is unlikely to miss quite as much.

Keywords: Ivory Coast AFCON Africa Cup of Nations

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