Morocco vs. Nigeria: Casablanca awaits CHAN showdown

Dayo Ojo of Nigeria Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

The 2018 African Nations Championship will be decided in Sunday's showpiece at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca, as hosts Morocco face Nigeria in the tournament title decider.

The two continental heavyweights have had differing roads to this point, with the Super Eagles growing into the tournament after early setbacks, while Morocco have arguably lost some of their sting after an eye-catching start to the tournament.

However, while both sides have faced their respective hurdles en route to this decisive clash, it's hard to argue that they're not the tournament's two outstanding sides, demonstrating a strength in depth and resolve that few of their rivals could match.

Indeed, the duo head into Sunday's meeting without, arguably, their most important players, with the influential Abdelilah Hafidi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa both suffering injury problems during the tournament.

The former - a fine playmaker with Raja Casablanca - delivered arguably the individual performance of the tournament in the Atlas Lions' 4-0 rout of Mauritania.

Admittedly, their opponents were limited, but the attacking midfielder created a litany of chances for his teammates and was a buzzing hub of creativity all game.

Duly, Guinea kicked him out of the match in Morocco's second game, with Hafidi suffering a muscular strain that's seen him sidelined ever since.

Despite being tipped to return for the semi final against Libya, he remained out of action, and it remains to be seen whether he will play any part in the showpiece of Nigeria.

It's a great shame for the tournament that arguably the finest participating technician in Morocco - and a darling of the home fans - has been out of action, but in his stead, the likes of Walid El Karti, Ismail Haddad and tournament top scorer Ayoub El Kaabi have carried the offensive burden.

Wydad Casablanca's CAF Champions League star Achraf Bencharki hasn't quite lit up the tournament as many expected, but both he and defender Jawad El Yamiq are in contention to feature against Nigeria despite scoring moves abroad during the tournament for home-based players.

Wideman Zakaria Hadraf deserves credit for his decisive contributions, while a midfield duo of Salaheddine Saidi and Mehdi Barrahma may have too much for Dayo Ojo, Ifeanyi Ifeanyi and veteran Rabiu Ali.

In defence, goalkeeper Anas Zniti may have endured a horrible lapse against Libya, but he underpins a fine defensive unit, with Raja duo Badr Benoun and El Yamiq keeping the talented Nayef Aguerd out of the starting XI during the knockouts.

Full-backs Abdeljalil Jbira and, in particular, Mohamed Nahiri, are both offensive weapons who will look to dominate the flanks and provide support for the likes of Hadraf, Haddad and Bencharki.

Even without the glittering Hafidi, Morocco have the firepower to expose a Nigerian backline that conceded against both Equatorial Guinea and Angola, while their defensive unit will represent a stern test for Anthony Okpotu and Gabriel Okechukwu.

While the Super Eagles may never have boasted a player as talented as Hafidi to lose, Salisu Yusuf's side are a patched-up unit as they limp their way to the final, having contended with a litany of fitness concerns during the campaign.

However, while each one of Nigeria's CHAN stars have dropped out of contention due to injury, new heroes have emerged as Yusuf's squad continue to pick up steam as they approach the final.

Their 120-minute showing against Angola took its toll, even if it did wonders for morale, with Sunday Faleye - one of the breakout stars of the campaign - dislocating his elbow to rule him out of the rest of the campaign.

Elsewhere, the likes of Ifeanyi Ifeanyi, Kalu Orji, effective left-back Daniel Itodo and Moses Eneji have all contended with injury or fitness problems this tournament, while Ali was dropped ahead of the Libya game as Yusuf sought to preserve him for the challenges to come.

As players have been sidelined, however, others have stepped up to the plate; young full-back Ikouwem Utin, midfielder Dayo Ojo and striker Gabriel Okechukwu all started the campaign on the bench, but have emerged to play a key part in the knockout victories over Angola and Sudan.

Yusuf's ability to fine heroes in his ranks was never more evident than in the semi, when goalkeeper Ezenwa followed up on his Man of the Match display against Angola by getting injured early into the contest.

The setback would have destabilised other teams, but Ezenwa's replacement Dele Ajiboye came in cold to deliver a thoroughly outstanding display - denying Sudan at every turn - as the Eagles found new inspiration to reach the final.

So far, Nigeria have found the resources to combat every obstacle and every injury that's been thrown their way, but Yusuf will be aware - and Ajiboye will soon find out - that Morocco represent a test sterner than any they've yet faced.

Encouragingly for the Eagles, however, momentum is on their side.

As they have grown into the tournament, Morocco have struggled to recreate the free-flowing football they demonstrated early on, and the complacency demonstrated against Libya in their semi ought to give Nigeria genuine reason for optimism.