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AFCON 2023 Day 6: The moment of truth arrives for Ghana and Nigeria

The second round of group stage matches begins on Thursday at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations and there are a couple of thrilling matches that have plenty at stake. Hosts Ivory Coast attempt to assert their dominance of Group A against a Nigeria team that is low on confidence and form while Ghana attempt to get their campaign back on track against Mohamed Salah and Egypt after a devastating defeat to Cape Verde. Read more on both matches as well as Thursday’s opener between Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau below:

Group A: Equatorial Guinea vs Guinea-Bissau 14:00 GMT

A Guinean derby is the first of the three matches with plenty at stake for both Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in Abidjan. A defeat on the opening day to hosts Ivory Coast leaves Guinea-Bissau at the bottom of Group A but their most difficult fixture is out of the way and this will be their best opportunity to earn three points. Equatorial Guinea will feel likewise for the must win match with Ivory Coast on the horizon for their third match.

Guinea-Bissau coach Baciro Candé was a calm figure in the pre-match press conference and acknowledged the need for a victory on Thursday, stating that he and his team have learned from the mistakes made in a 2-0 opening day defeat to the hosts. Candé will have to do without one key player, however, after the Bissau Guinean football federation reported that central defender Opa Sanganté will miss out due to a muscle injury.

Versatile veteran defender Sori Mané appears likely to play for Sanganté and partner Marcelo Djaló in the Djurtus defense with Fali Candé on the left and either Jefferson Encada or Nanú on the right. Alfa Semedo and Janio Bikel are deep lying midfielders who will provide further defensive support with Moreto Cassamá in a more advanced central role. Wingers Carlos Mané and Mauro Rodrigues caused some issues for the Ivorian defense at times and they will support Mama Baldé or Zinho Gano at the striker position with Gano the more natural finisher of the two and Baldé is more mobile.

For Equatorial Guinea, coach Juan Micha and goalkeeper Jesús Owono overcame a language barrier at the press conference with CAF providing no Spanish translators forcing the two Nzalang members to answer questions in French and English. Micha stated the match is a final for his team who did well to draw Nigeria but must win on Thursday to be serious candidates to advance beyond the group stage. Right back Carlos Akapo is a potential absence due to injury but Micha refused to rule him out.

If Akapo can not play than his attacking ability will be missed but the defense remains solid for Nzalang Nacional with a talented shot stopper in Owono. Saúl Coco and attacking left back Basilio Ndong are reliable squad members and Esteban Orozco, who played in the center against Nigeria, can move to the right side if necessary. Federico Bikoro and Pablo Ganet are capable midfielders in the center and Bikoro will be more defensively oriented. José “Pepín” Machín is a technically skilled playmaker at the central attacking midfield position with veterans Ivan Salvador Édu (the goal scorer against Nigeria) and Emilio Nsue the leaders in the attack.

Group A: Ivory Coast vs Nigeria 17:00 GMT

Two of West Africa’s powerhouses will meet for the second match of the day with Nigeria entering the cauldron of the Stade Alassane Ouattara to face hosts Ivory Coast. Nigeria performed relatively well against Equatorial Guinea but star striker and African Player of the Year Victor Osimhen failed to convert a couple of excellent chances which was the difference between a victory and a draw. Ivory Coast did not reach full acceleration against Guinea-Bissau but a couple of moments of quality was enough for a 2-0 victory.

The Ivorian team is eager to meet expectations in the big test. Coach Jean-Louis Gasset paid plenty of respect to the Nigerian team even stating that the Super Eagles have more talent on paper and that his team will need to move the ball quicker than they did in their opening match against Guinea-Bissau. Captain Max Gradel was more assertive remarking that the Elephants are not afraid of any team in this competition. Gasset mentioned that forwards Sébastien Haller and Simon Adingra should be available after returning to training.

Gasset also emphasized the importance of midfielder Séko Fofana who leads a group that is considered the strength of the Ivorian team with Ibrahim Sangaré and of course Franck Kessié. The concern may be in defense where there were moments of vulnerability even from star central defender Evan Ndicka who was caught off guard on a couple of occasions by the attack of Guinea-Bissau.

It appears Serge Aurier is set to return to the right back position after coming on as a substitute at halftime in the opener and Ghislain Konan should retain his spot on the left. It will be difficult to send striker Jean-Philippe Krasso to the bench after his excellent goal against Guinea-Bissau and it is reasonable to believe that attackers Jérémie Boga and Jonathan Bamba will continue in the eleven after some excellent moments against the Djurtus.

For Nigeria the team is under considerable pressure that continues to only increase after an underwhelming draw against Equatorial Guinea. Coach José Peseiro saw little wrong with the performance stating that his team did create plenty of chances. Peseiro confirmed that standout central midfielder Alhassan Yusuf will miss out due to injury and that their are no other injury concerns.

Forward Kelechi Iheanacho declared he is back to 100% and could be a factor either from the start or off the bench. However there was plenty of promise shown by Ademola Lookman and Moses Simon is unlikely to be moved to the bench. Paul Onuachu and Samuel Chukwueze also remain viable options in the strong Nigerian attack.

With Yusuf out his responsibilities will likely fall to either Raphael Onyedika (a defensive option) or Joe Aribo (a more accomplished passer) who came on for Yusuf against Equatorial Guinea. Frank Onyeka will be a screen in front of the defense where captain William Troost-Ekong will partner Semi Ajayi while Ola Aina and Zaidu Sanusi are full backs who enjoy making forward runs in support of the attack. Calvin Bassey is also a candidate to have a role on Thursday and it appears that Peseiro is set on South Africa-based Stanley Nwabili as his number one goalkeeper.

Group B: Egypt vs Ghana 20:00 GMT

While Nigeria showed some good moments, their West African rivals Ghana have little to no confidence ahead of a crucial clash against the winningest nation in AFCON history, Egypt. The defensive organization of Chris Hughton’s side came under heavy criticism and cost the Black Stars a point with a late meltdown that led to a late match winner for Cape Verde winger Garry Rodrigues. However their opponents are searching for answers as well after an awful second half performance from Egypt allowed Mozambique to earn a shock 2-2 draw.

The Egyptian defense looked quite slow and wilted in the heat of Ivory Coast while Mohamed Salah turned in a rare performance that was uninspiring and disappointing. Head coach Rui Vitória said that he went back to the drawing board after the draw against Mozambique and Egyptian supporters should expect changes to the eleven based on the Portuguese gaffer’s statements. The coach emphasized that Ghana will punish any defensive mistakes and there is reason to believe the changes will be in the defense.

Ahmed Hegazy appears to be the most likely to move to the bench after he looked notably slow against Mozambique having recently returned from injury. Speed is an issue in the center of defense but there is reason to believe that injury replacement Yasser Ibrahim could feature to partner club teammate Mohamed Abdelmonem in the center. Mohamed Hamdy performed well as an attacking left back and will provide accurate crossing while either Mohamed Hany or Omar Kamal operate on the right flank.

Mohamed Salah prefers to drop back more and be a playmaker which has drawn criticism from Egyptian supporters. However he did produce some excellent passes for teammates Trezeguet and striker Mostafa Mohamed and will be determined to silence the critics. Zamalek star Zizo was rather ineffective and could be replaced by German-based attacker Omar Marmoush. Hamdi Fathi and Mohamed Elneny are reliable players who will form the heart of the Egyptian midfield.

For Ghana and their supporters the alarm bells are ringing after their heartbreaking defeat to Cape Verde and there is no confidence in the Black Stars or coach Chris Hughton. The Irish tactician was confronted by a supporter after the match in what the Ghana Football Association called a “verbal altercation”. The GFA did say that star playmaker Mohammed Kudus will be available after training with the team following a knock that kept him out against Cape Verde.

There were a couple of positives against Cape Verde for Hughton. Center back Alexander Djiku was quite good as well as central midfielder Majeed Ashimeru and winger Joseph Paintsil. Djiku should partner again with Mohammed Salisu with Denis Odoi (right side) and Gideon Mensah (left side) as the fullbacks. Defensive midfielder Baba Iddrisu, however, was rather poor and may be replaced by Salis Abdul Samed or Elisha Owusu. Salisu was unconvincing at times as well and there are central defender options that include Daniel Amartey and Nicholas Opoku.

The attacking formation is difficult to predict but Paintsil and Jordan Ayew are likely to retain their places in the eleven. Antoine Semenyo also impressed at times in the striker position and considering the inefficiency of substitutes André Ayew, Ernest Nuamah and Iñaki Williams the trio of Paintsil, Jordan Ayew and Semenyo should get another chance. Ransford-Yeboah Königsdorffer had an up and down performance and could make way for captain André Ayew who will equal former Cameroonian defender Rigobert Song for most appearances at the AFCON if he plays on Thursday.

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