Nigeria and Burkina Faso are both worthy of their spots in the Africa Cup of Nations final. The Super Eagles eliminated the Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals. The Stallions stunned Ghana in the semifinals. Those were the two nations expected to reach the championship match.
Instead, Nigeria and Burkina Faso will battle for the tournament title on Sunday. Nigeria will enter as the favorite after a dominating performance against Mali, but that distinction has meant very little throughout the event.
The countries faced off in the group stage opener and the match ended in a draw. Both sides can expect another tightly played game in the final. Let's analyze one player from each nation who must step up for his squad to win the trophy.
Nigeria: Emmanuel Emenike
In the first meeting between the sides, it was Emenike who provided Nigeria's only goal. It was the start of a great run of form for the 25-year-old striker, who's tied for the tournament lead with four goals, including one in each knockout round so far.
Just like against Mali, the best plan of attack for the Super Eagles in the final is putting on as much early pressure as possible. The tendency in finals is for teams to be ultra conservative with hopes of avoiding a costly mistake.
Nigeria can't afford to let that happen against a Burkina Faso side that's been gaining confidence with each passing round and has played tremendous defense. The longer Nigeria allows the match to stay close, the higher the probability of an upset.
Emenike must attempt to control the match from the outset by pushing the pace. He puts a lot of pressure on the opposing back line with his combination of speed and finishing ability. It needs to be on full display again on Sunday.
Burkina Faso: Paul Koulibaly
Burkina Faso received very little attention or hype coming into the event. It was placed in a group with Nigeria and defending champion Zambia, which made it an underdog to make it out of the group stage, let alone make a run all the way to the final.
The main reason the Stallions are now one win away from glory is consistent, reliable defending. The back line, which is led by center backs Koulibaly and Bakary Kone, has been virtually impenetrable at times. The team has allowed just two goals in five matches.
Koulibaly was especially impressive in the semifinal triumph over Ghana. Although he was fortunate to avoid a red card for a foul on Asamoah Gyan late in the match, he was integral in keeping an extremely dangerous attacking group at bay.
He'll need to rise to the occasion one more time, this time against a Nigeria side that exploded for four goals in its last match. It starts with slowing down Emenike, which will be his main focus, and the rest will fall into place from there.