The Super Eagles of Nigeria made it to a first-ever CHAN final after seeing off Sudan 1-0 in Thursday’s semi-final in Marrakech, in typically dramatic fashion.
Gabriel Okechuku – hero in the 2-1 extra time quarter-final win over 2011 runners-up Angola, was the man of the moment again as he latched on to Antony Okpotu’s header and coolly slotted the ball past Sudan goalie Akram in the 16th minute. Nigeria’s number one Ikechukwu Ezenwa had gone off injured four minutes earlier and was replaced by Plateau United’s Dele Ajiboye, who emerged as an unlikely hero for the national side.
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 31, 2018
Despite their success to date, however, Salisu Yusuf and his coaching crew now come up against their toughest test yet, as they face Morocco, arguably the best team present at the CHAN, in Sunday's final.
Indeed no team has scored more goals (12) than the Atlas Lions. The 4-0 opening Group A bashing of Mauritania and the 3-1 extra-time semi-final victory over rivals and 2014 champions Libya were prime examples of their dominance.
I'm not even bothered on Manchester United's result against Spurs.
The victory of our very own @NGSuperEagles against Sudan make me feel so happy and proud. They have made it to finals #CHAN2018.
Thank you, Nigeria! — Sen Danjuma Goje (@SenDanjumaGoje) January 31, 2018
In contrast, the Super Eagles have not been at their eye-catching best despite making it through to the final.
They weren’t convincing enough during the group phase, drawing their opener against Rwanda and struggling to get past Libya, before coming from behind to defeat Equatorial Guinea.
The West Africans were on the cusp of elimination in the quarter-finals at the hands of 2011 runners-up Angola, but 2017 NPFL top scorer Anthony Okpotu equalised at the death before Akwa United’s Okechukwu sealed the deal in extra-time.
Nigeria becomes first and ONLY team to play in all hosting cities.
Nigeria 0-0 Rwanda
Nigeria 1-0 Libya
Nigeria 2-1 Angola (AET)
Nigeria 3-1 Equatorial Guinea
Nigeria 1-0 Sudan
Nigeria vs Morocco #CHAN2018 pic.twitter.com/AbdO7R7ygQ — Emmanuel Etim (@Emiearth) January 31, 2018
The Super Eagles might have a never-die attitude which has made them go this far, but they’ll need to be much better and sharper against Morocco at the Stade Mohammed V on Sunday.
Unlike against Sudan, the defence can’t afford to be sloppy and leave the goalkeeper to save their blushes. Similarly, the midfield has been giving away possession cheaply throughout the tournament, and danger looms if they're similarly complacent against the hosts, who could capitalise on their failings.
The absence of the banned Ifeanyi also denies them a key man in the heart of the midfield.
Above all, the attack needs to be sharper and convert their chances.
The likes of Sunday Faleye and Okpotu have shone brightly on occasion in North Africa, but have also been wasteful with their finishing.
On the day, game-management will be critical, and the Eagles need so settle early in order to take the sting out of opponents who will be desperate to lift the title in front of their own fans.
The nation are gradually emerging from a dark period of underachievement, with the senior national team qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years after reaching the quarter final of the Nations Cup, and Wydad Casablanca lifting the CAF Champions League as the nation's first winners since Raja Casablanca in 1999.
Morocco are a footballing nation back on the rise, and their talented and offensively dominant home-based team, with the advantage of home support, represent the sternest test yet for these home-based Eagles.