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AFCON 2023: Facts to note as competition advances

AFCON

When Nigeria take the field for their 2023 Africa Cup of Nations AFCON, last-16 tie against Cameroon, the stakes will be incredibly high.

Apart from a rivalry between the nations spanning four decades, beginning in earnest with Cameroon’s victory in the 1984 final, the Super Eagles will also be keen to exorcise the disappointment of two years ago, when they exited the tournament in the first knockout round.

Despite starting the 2021 edition – in Cameroon, incidentally – on a high, as the only side to win all three group-stage matches, Nigeria then suffered a shock 1-0 defeat by Tunisia.

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It brought a premature end to a campaign which had promised so much, and has added a layer of trepidation among fans before Saturday’s encounter with the Indomitable Lions in Abidjan.

“I understand many people are reminding us about the last tournament and leaving at this same stage,” star striker Victor Osimhen told BBC Sport Africa.

“There is no second chance in knockout football. You win or go home.”

Cameroon have five continental titles to Nigeria’s three – with the Super Eagles also losing finals to the Central Africans in 1988 and 2000 – and in Osimhen’s eyes this “huge” match-up almost transcends football.

“We are determined to win and we want to do the talking on the pitch and outside,” the reigning African Footballer of the Year added.

“We all go to war together as team-mates, as brothers, as Nigerians, and there is nothing our people want more than for us to win.”

Yet Super Eagles captain William Troost-Ekong is wary of the potential pitfalls ahead, with form during the group stage counting for little in one-off encounters.

The side’s defeat against the Carthage Eagles two years ago came as a shock to the system, but the defender believes the team is richer for the experience.

“That was a clear lesson for us and something that we learned the hard way.” Troost-Ekong said.

“And you never know what will happen because knockout football is a strange scene now – [with] so many surprising results in the AFCON.”

Nigeria’s manner of progress through the tournament has come as something of a surprise too.

The finals in Ivory Coast have been marked by upsets, and while the Super Eagles emerged from Group A in line with expectation they finished behind lesser-fancied Equatorial Guinea on goal difference.

Jose Peseiro’s side struggled for goals, scoring only three times in three group matches, with Osimhen coming in for particular criticism.

Despite coming into the competition as the highest scorer in qualifying, the Napoli man is in the middle of a rut, having missed more big chances than anyone else in the Ivory Coast.

Osimhen has registered the highest figures for expected goals (xG) and attempts at goal at the Afcon finals, scoring his only goal from a combined xG of 2.72 after sending in 13 shots.

It is an unusual state of affairs for the 25-year-old, who is under significant pressure to deliver not just for Nigeria, but in justification of the continental player of the year award he received in December.

Osimhen says he has yet to show his best form, but believes his overall contribution to the team has been positive despite the missed chances.

“I have one goal in three games – not so good for my kind of person but of course, I’m still a work in progress,” he said.

“This is my first proper Afcon. I think I still have a long way to go, which is normal, and I have so much in store for me to give to the team.

“Before anyone comes out to criticise me, I am my first critic. But so far, so good.

“I’ve been doing well even though the goals are not coming yet. I think I’ve been able to show my support to my team-mates, working hard for them, chasing every ball, defending for them and motivating them also.

“I think this is one of the most important things as one of the leaders in the team, and I’m happy with my contribution so far.”

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