The 2023 AFCON Final is set! Will Nigeria or Ivory Coast win it all?

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Ivory Coast’s fans celebrate a goal scored by Seko Fofana during the African Cup of Nations Group A soccer match between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Today culminates another bonkers Africa Cup of Nations. The 2023 AFCON has seen favorites fall, cinderella stories, and upsets all along the way! Now one of Nigeria and Ivory Coast will become champions of Africa! How did those nations beat the odds to get to this final? Let’s take a look back at the semifinals to find out!

Ivory Coast’s fans celebrate a goal scored by Seko Fofana during the African Cup of Nations Group A soccer match between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A Look Back at the AFCON Semifinals

Nigeria (4) 1 – 1 (2) South Africa

Nigeria came into this AFCON with the status of a giant in the game, but one that has underperformed at previous tournaments. Their last win at AFCON was a decade ago in 2013. They came into this tournament looking to win it all, and have dominated their way to the final. In the group stage, they drew their first game but went on to win their final two matches without conceding. They took this great form into the knockout rounds. A 2-0 win over Cameroon in the Round of 16, and a 1-0 win over Angola in the quarterfinals brought Nigeria to the semifinals to take on South Africa.

South Africa entered the semifinals with a determined grit not to be knocked out. Their form was not like Nigerias. South Africa picked up a win, a loss, and a draw in the group stage. That was still enough to get them to the knockouts. There they beat tournament favorites Morocco 2-0 in the Round of 16. In the Quarterfinals they played a thrilling 0-0 game against Cape Verde, where they persevered in a penalty shootout. This brought them to their semifinal matchup with Nigeria.

In this match, it was clear that Nigeria was going to lean on what got them to the semifinals, their stout defense, and their killer counterattacking prowess. Because of this, South Africa had the majority of possession. The problem lay in neither nation’s ability to create true chances in this semifinal. A scoreless first half was rather boring with both nations not wanting to make mistakes. That would change in the second half. A Nigeria counter-attack led to the winning of a penalty kick. Wiliam Troost-Ekong converted and gave the Nigerians the lead. As the match went on it looked like it would end 1-0; however, in the 90th minute South Africa won a PK, and Teboho Mokoena converted!

The match would need an extra 30 minutes and then PKs to determine who would go to the final. In the 30 minutes, both teams were heated and fatigued. South Africa’s Gomolemo Grant Kekana made a rash challenge resulting in a red card minutes before the shootout leaving his nation with one fewer PK taker. This one would need penalty kicks to determine the winner. Nigeria kicked first and converted; South Africa could not follow suit giving the Nigerians the early lead in the shootout. Both nations scored in round two, missed in round three, and converted in round four. With the decisive fifth kick, Nigeria’s Kelechi Iheanacho needed to score to take his nation to the AFCON final.

He did just that! Nigeria moved on to the final, while South Africa would have to settle for a consolation AFCON 3rd place match.

Referee Bouchra Karboubi signs for the VAR during the African Cup of Nations Group A soccer match between Guinea Bissau and Nigeria, at the Felix Houphouet Boigny stadium in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Ivory Coast 1 – 0 DR Congo

Ivory Coast is the host of this AFCON. They came into the tournament as not one of the best teams in the field, but their home-field advantage had them counted among the favorites to make a run for the cup. Their group stage form changed that thought. After winning their first match, they lost their next two and had to luck into making the knockouts as a third-place group finisher. It was then that they dug deep. They took down defending champs Senegal in the Round of 16 on PKS and then beat Mali 2-1 to make it to the semifinals where they took on DR Congo.

DR Congo is another nation that was not thought of as capable of making a semifinal run at this AFCON. However, they were able to fly under the radar to find a way to survive and advance. DR Congo drew all three of their group-stage matches but made it to the knockouts. There, they beat Egypt in PKs in the Round of 16, and Guinea by a score of 3-1 in the quarterfinals. Their sneaky run to the semifinals had them bursting with confidence to take down the hosts.

This semifinal was one of with ebbs and flows. Each nation had the momentum at times, and then it would swing the other way. The possession stats were close to even; however, both teams only created two shots on target all match. Of the two teams, Ivory Coast was able to create more chances, even if they weren’t of the highest quality, which is why they won the xG battle 1.21-0.93. There was only one goal in this match, and it came in the second half.

In the 65th minute, Ivory Coast had the momentum of the game on their side. They created an attacking chance, and it was one of their two shots on target. Max-Alain Gradel found the foot of Sebastien Haller in DR Congo’s box. Hallar was able to strike the ball with his right foot and it beat a flailing Lionel Mpasi-Nzau. Ivory Coast had the lead, and it would hold onto it on its way to making the AFCON final!

Hosts Ivory Coast will be underdogs taking on Nigeria in the final of the 2023 AFCON. However, before that match, the nations that fell in the semifinals, South Africa and DR Congo faced off in the 3rd place match!

Ivory Coast’s Evan Ndicka, left, slides as he defends against Guinea-Bissau’s Mauro Rodrigues Teixira during the African Cup of Nations Group A soccer match between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

South Africa takes 3rd place in PKS over DR Congo

In a match that is a consolation yet a celebration of the nations that fell just short of the AFCON final, South Africa and DR Congo played for the chance to win third place in this tournament. While third place was on the line, both nations played open and with nothing to lose. Unfortunately for both, no goals came. After a scoreless 90 minutes, the game went right to a PK shootout.

As has been the case for much of this AFCON, chaos ensued in the shootout. South Africa missed their first kick, then went on to make their next six PKs. DR Congo opened the shootout making their first four kicks. All they needed to do was make their fifth and they’d win 3rd place. They failed to do so and the shootout went to sudden death. In the sixth round, South Africa had made their kick, and DR Congo had to match it in the seventh round to stay alive. They did not.

South Africa is the 3rd place winner of this AFCON, while DR Congo will have to settle for 4th place. Now it’s time to focus on the AFCON Final!

South Africa’s Evidence Makgopa, center, scores his sides first goal past Morocco’s goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, right, and Morocco’s Romain Saiss during the African Cup of Nations round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and South Africa, at the Laurent Pokou stadium in San Pédro, Ivory Coast, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Will the betting favorites or the hosts win the 2023 AFCON?

Today’s the day; the AFCON Final! Who will hoist the trophy, Nigeria or Ivory Coast? Nigeria is the slim betting favorite in this matchup, which will probably light a fire under Ivory Coast. This game is yet another of contrasting styles; Nigeria’s poise, structure, and cunning attacking movements vs Ivory Coast’s chaotic essence with a home crowd backing them on a run that is thought to have a divine intervention propelling them to greatness.

In terms of the play on the pitch, Nigeria’s style should be able to outlast Ivory Coast. They have only conceded just two goals, and have attacking players who can spring a counterattack out of nothing. However, if the Ivory Coast can muck the game up, and create some chances that get the crowd going we could see them continue their shocking run. Who would have thought that a nation that fired their coach after the group stage could go on a knockout round run?

Who will win the day? Tune in at 3 pm EST to find out!

Artists performing during the opening ceremony ahead of the African Cup of Nations Group A soccer match between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

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Mandatory Credit: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba & AP Photo/Themba Hadebe