2nd February, 2018
Either of hosts Morocco or rivals Nigeria can be crowned champions of the 2018 Championship of African Nations (CHAN) at the end of hostilities on Sunday in Casablanca.
But a lot will be depending on several factors at the Stade Mohammed V where the Nigerian side will be under intense pressure, especially from the expected massive crowd.
Both countries had secured their places in the championship’s final with victories over Libya and Sudan, to indicate their level of strength.
Morocco were 3-1 winners in their semi-final tie, thanks to a brace from Ayoub El Kaabi who continues to make scoring look easy after his seventh and eighth goals of the campaign.
His second came in extra-time after the two sides were locked at 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes.
The North Africans sealed a dominant performance when Walid El Karti scored a penalty kick to put the result beyond Libya and book their place in the final for the first time.
They won Group A by a goal difference after two wins and a draw and have reached the final without defeat after wins over Namibia and Libya in the knockout rounds.
The Atlas Lions will therefore be counting on their seeming invincibility and home advantage to help them win their first-ever trophy against Nigeria in the final on Sunday.
They were last-minute replacement for Kenya whose preparations to host the tournament looked uninspiring, prompting the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to quickly look for new hosts.
However, coach Jamal Sellami’s charges have not disappointed in spite of their late confirmation, and have displayed excellent footballing skills with great precision in all the five games played so far.
They have scored 12 goals and conceded only two with Ayoub El Kaabi netting eight of those goals in the process.
After stopping Namibia, following a 2-0 victory, and spanking Libya 3-1 in the semi-finals, a first major trophy in more than three decades appears to be in sight for Morocco.
But, they now face a stern test against a supercharged Super Eagles who are also gunning for their first title after three attempts.
Even before kick-off of Sunday’s battle, Nigeria have made history, as this is the first-time ever that Nigeria would reach the competition’s final.
They have won bronze medals at the 2014 finals in South Africa.
But their path was more difficult, overcoming a number of adversities to reach the final of the CHAN for the first time after beating Sudan 1-0 in Marrakech on Wednesday.
Gabriel Okechukwu’s first half strike made the difference in the semi-final against Sudan.
The dynamics of the game changed in the second-half as Nigeria’s Ifeanyi Ifeanyi was sent off with both managers quickly tinkering with their squads in a number of tactical substitutions.
But Nigeria held on to set up a final with the hosts.
The West Africans have not been so proficient in front of goal, but still boast of a number of players who can find the back of the net.
Okechukwu and Anthony Okpotu have been more than a handful with two goals each.
The Super Eagles topped Group B with seven points after two wins and a draw, reaching the final without tasting defeat after wins over Angola and Sudan in the knockout rounds.
They have created a lot of chances at goal, failing however to convert about 80 percent of their opportunities.
But they have not let in too many either, scoring five goals and conceding only one in five games played so far.
Coach Yusuf would however be ruing his inability to call upon first-team players such as Emeka Atuloma, Sunday Faleye and Emeka Ogbuh, all due to injuries.
Also added to the list of the injured ones is goalkeeper and skipper Ikechukwu Ezenwa who was stretchered out injured barely 10 minutes into their semi-finals encounter against Sudan.
Nevertheless, with ex-junior international Oladele Ajiboye in fine form after a number of spectacular saves as a substitute for Ezenwa, it is hoped that Nigeria’s defence would be tight as ever.
The coach will also be counting on the likes of Kalu Okogbue who deputised as skipper for the inspirational Ezenwa, Okechukwu, the energetic Dayo Ojo and, of course Okpotu.
Yusuf was quoted as saying that he believes hosts Morocco are beatable if only his team “do the right things” when they clash in the final on Sunday.
“For the game against Morocco, every team is beatable. If we do the right things, why not! We can beat Morocco.”
Reward for the winner of the 2018 CHAN tournament is a whopping 1.25 million dollars as against the previous 750,000 dollars.
Each player of the home-based Eagles is expected to earn about 20,000 dollars as the bonus and allowances should they win the 2018 CHAN in Morocco.
This is enough inspiration for the Nigerian side to go all out for the match to be action-packed.