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Football | Afcon

Joseph Yobo © Backpagepix

No underdog concerns - Yobo



Nigeria skipper Joseph Yobo believes they have no added pressure on their shoulders heading into their Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) quarterfinal clash against Ivory Coast as underdogs.

Nigeria have failed to beat the Elephants in their last two Afcon meetings – in the 2008 group stage in Ghana and the 2006 semifinal in Egypt – but Yobo dismissed talk of payback on Sunday, preferring instead to concentrate on winning the clash.

"If you put the squad that they have on paper, you can naturally say that we [Nigeria] are the underdogs," Yobo said ahead of the fixture at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Phokeng, outside Rustenburg.

"But football is very different. They [Ivory Coast] lost at the last tournament in the final [against Zambia] and they were favourites there as well.

"Ivory Coast have a very strong squad, people might think that we are underdogs, it doesn't really put us under any pressure, but we know the importance of this game.

"In football there is no payback time. In the times where I've been involved and lost to Ivory Coast, it's been very close, we were unlucky but credit to them.

"It's not payback time, we want the win, we want to qualify for the next stage, winning is more important than paying back."

Nigeria struggled throughout their three group stage clashes, finishing runners-up in Group C, having played to two 1-1 draws against defending champions Zambia and Burkina Faso, before claiming a 2-0 victory over Ethiopia in their last group match.

The Super Eagles had to rely on two penalties against the Ethiopians to book their spot in the next round, with the young Nigerian outfit showing hints of a lack of communication both in defence and attack.

Yobo said he was aware of the a slight communication issue in the side, but added that he had already seen a vast improvement since the 23-man squad assembled ahead of the tournament.

"There has been an improvement from the time that we regrouped as a squad," Yobo said.

"I've seen improvement in the young players that are coming through. It doesn't come overnight, now that we are in a tournament, they are getting better.

"I don't see any differences between myself and them, I interact very well with them, we have a great relationship and it's probably the best I've seen since I've been in the national team.

"I also remind them that they are in a position where they have to take responsibility. I wish we had longer time together as a squad, which we don't have in our hands but I believe they are going to get better every game."

Meanwhile, Ivory Coast head into the encounter once again as favourites, with coach Sabri Lamouchi hailing the Ivorians' team spirit as a major success throughout the early phases of the tournament.

Having already qualified top of group D before their last match against Algeria, Lamouchi's side – without the likes of Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Emmanuel Eboue who were rested – came back from a two goal deficit to level the match at 2-2.

"What is very interesting in this Ivory Coast team is the spirit within the team," the former France international said.

"We've played three games and won two, drew one. But the spirit in the last game and the reaction from my players in the last game [against Algeria] just shows that when they are facing a difficult challenge, they always rise to the occasion."

The Elephants' biggest superstar – in a team brimming with big name talents – Didier Drogba scored his first goal of the tournament against the Algerians, after being relegated to the bench in the Ivorians' second group D clash against Tunisia, but Lamouchi said the former Chelsea attacker had no guarantees of a place in Sunday's starting lineup.

"The selection policies remain the same, we won't change anything in that regard," Lamouchi said.

"We will carry on with what we have in place ahead of Sunday.

"If Didier is in the team, that's fine. Didier's contribution is massive. He is one of those players who can change the game. But if he is not in the team, there are youngsters who can step in and help the country to qualify for the semifinals."

Shifting his attention to their opponents, Lamouchi said the west African nation could not afford to underestimate the inexperienced Nigerians, and would have to be clinical to ensure the Afcon trophy returned to Ivorian shores for the first time since 1992.

"As a coach, Nigeria has a wonderful squad. Nigeria have a young, talented side who can run fast, who sometimes cause problems to their opponents," he said.

"We know that Nigeria is a team that can sometimes surprise. The fact that they finished second in their group, these things happen.

"But this team has a good squad who can surprise everybody."

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