All is now set for the final of the 2018 African Nations Championship between Nigeria and hosts Morocco.
Nigeria and Morocco last met at the CHAN tournament in 2014 held in South Africa, when Nigeria came from 1-3 down to earn a heart-stopping 4-3 victory over the Atlas Lions.
Veteran midfielder Rabiu Ali played a pivotal role in that memorable encounter.
However, Morocco now have not just a chance for revenge, but also win the tournament right before their teaming fans in Casablanca.
So far the North Africans have been the most entertaining team.
Led by the mercurial predator Ayoub El Kaabi, Morocco have set the tournament alive, scoring twelve goals and conceding only two.
But Nigeria has shown tenacity, grit, resilience and adaptation to qualify for her first final.
The CHAN Eagles have scored seven goals and conceded two.
Coach Salisu Yusuf understands that he has his work cut out.
“Playing against the host who will have their fans behind them as the 12th player. It will be a good game because we all have been great and will have 11 players on each side,” he said.
“We know they have great players who are very strong in the air and we will device a way to stop them. It has been a great tournament for us we have played in all venues and tomorrow we will have Casablanca added to it.”
Nigeria’s team captain and goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa will miss this all-important final due to the injury he picked up in the semi-finals against the rampaging Sudanese.
Also missing is the talented young striker Sunday Faleye, whose guile and pace has played a role in Nigeria’s steady progress to the final.
But coach Yusuf seems unperturbed.
“We have injuries in the team with Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Sunday Faleye but we will see how it goes. Win or lose for us the important thing is to play in the final. We know the Morocco team will be backed by their fans but we have shown a lot of character in the previous matches,” he states.
“I believe in every member of my players here because they’ve shown that they’re all ready if given the opportunity. We want to win because we deserve to be here.”
The Atlas Lions are also not leaving anything to chance.
“We have three players who were in CHAN 2014 and today we spoke to the players that it is a completely different ball game and the players are ready to deliver,” said coach Jamal Sellami.
“We will be playing against a difficult opponent but all my players are ready for the game because it is a special game for them.”
Most Nigerian football teams are known for their power-play, great technique, speed and mental strength.
For coach Sellami, these attributes are all-too evident in Nigeria’s CHAN Eagles, facts he says can only be ignored at one’s peril.
“Nigeria have individual players and they want to win duels but my team is prepared and we have qualities to get solutions against them,” he points out.
“From the beginning of the tournament we selected players based on their physical conditions and the opponents. Despite the Nigeria team being strong we have all that it takes to win and keep the trophy here. I’m fully confident of my team but we respect Nigeria because they are good that is why they made it to the finals.”
Winning has added significance for both teams.
It would be the first time either side will win the title, which would boost their FIFA rankings.
Secondly, this championship has provided players from both nations the chance to stake a claim for a place in their respective national team’s world cup list.
Before the commencement of the tournament, Nigeria’s goalkeeper and team captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa was almost certain to make the world cup.
His man-of-the-match performance against Angola finally confirmed his place in the Super Eagles team going to Russia later in June.
But Nigerians were stunned when substitute goalie Dele Ajiboye came-in to replace injured Ezenwa and put up an eye-catching performance against a desperate Sudan in the semi-finals.
Many Nigerians are now demanding the Plateau United goal tender be giving a look-in by the Super Eagles Manager Rohr.
Although the German tactician has ruled that out, another match-winning performance might force his hand.
It may not be a surprise to some, considering the fact that Ajiboye played a vital role in Nigeria winning the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship in 2007 under the tutelage of late Coach Yemi Tela.
It could be that the 28 year old Ajiboye has a natural gift for the big moments.
Defender Osa Okoro is being touted as the next great right full-back.
His on-the-ball technique, quick feet going forward, solid recovery and immaculate crosses have not gone unnoticed.
He’s most unlikely to return to the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) at the end of CHAN.
The same scenario applies to the Moroccans.
Top poacher Ayoub El Kaabi currently leads the tournament goal chat with eight goals.
It is almost inevitable that he will be on the plane to Russia.
“El Is leading us to the final and for him now is to show us that he is a great striker. Harve Renard is here and he is looking at him because before the tournament many in Morocco didn’t know about him. My final satisfaction will be to win the throphy tomorrow and we are prepared for that,” Says coach Sellami.
It is surely going to be a final filled with fireworks, as both teams appear really motivated to go the whole yard and clinch the trophy.
Nigeria’s captain Ezenwa gives an insight into the mood of the CHAN Eagles.
“In football you need team spirit which we have in the team so my absence will not affect the team because my deputy has done well against Sudan,” he noted.
“We’re ready its going to be a big final for both sides and we’re confident we can win the trophy. We have all been good in the tournament and deserves to be in the final.”
Moroccan defender Nayef Aguer believes his team holds the ace.
“Personally it will be a special game and I have faced a Nigerian club (Rivers United) before so we will be ready because we want to win. It is clearly a different game and when you see in Africa, Morocco has the best junior team. For us we’re ready to retain the trophy here, we have experienced players who can help us.”
For many neutrals, this has been a really entertaining tournament, showing that the African football leagues are coming of age.