AFCON 2023: Continent counts down hours

Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea will conclude the first matches of Group A of the 34th Africa Cup of Nations ongoing in Cote d’Ivoire when both nations clash at the brand-new Stade Alassane Ouattare in Ebimpe, outside Abidjan, on Sunday.

Matches between both nations have been few and far between, but Nigerians continue to relish a double over the neighbours to the south in qualification matches for the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals, when Joseph Yobo scored the only goal of the encounter in Malabo, and the Eagles then soared to a 4-0 win at the MKO Abiola National Stadium in Abuja.

On Saturday, Nigeria captain Ahmed Musa said after the pre-match press conference that the Super Eagles have their eyes on the three points and have no apologies for their aspiration.

“It is always interesting to play in the Africa Cup of Nations. I was a champion in 2013, same as (defender Kenneth) Omeruo. However, the rest of the team want to have that feeling of what it means to win the Africa Cup of Nations. Everyone is geared towards making a statement.

“It is not going to be a picnic. The teams in our group, including Equatorial Guinea that we play tomorrow, are strong and ambitious as well. It is for us to go all out for the three points in each of our games, and then take it from there in the knock-out rounds. We will take it one match at a time.”

Nigeria’s campaign is woven around the aphoristic ‘Let’s Do It Again’ mantra, which was launched moments after their qualification for the finals, and is designed to galvanise and motivate the group to repeat the triumphs of 1980, 1994 and 2013, and also mobilise football-passionate Nigerians to support and encourage the group to action.

This year’s final tournament is Nigeria’s 20th appearance, having made her debut in 1963, and then appeared at the 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2019 and 2021 finals.

The competition is also holding in the country where Nigeria reached the Final on away ground for the first time, losing to an experienced and battle-hardened Indomitable Lions of Cameroon at the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivorian capital.

Nigeria remains the country with the most podium appearances at the Africa Cup of Nations, having in addition to wins in 1980, 1994 and 2013, finished as runners-up in 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2000, and picked up the bronze medals in 1976, 1978, 1992, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2019, making for a total of 15 podium appearances in 20 finals.

Commentators continue to fret about a contention of lack of steel in midfield and perceived weakness in sectors of the defence, but Coach José Peseiro was bullish at the pre-match press conference on Saturday.

“I believe in my team. Every team has what you may call frail areas, but the important thing is for the players to play for one another. We are positive.”

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