The final stop on the road to the grand finale of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) served up two action-packed semi-final encounters that delivered nail-biting finishes.
However, unlike the previous rounds, there were no upsets as Nigeria and Ivory Coast edged their competitors to set up a mouth-watering showpiece event at the National Stadium in Abidjan.
Nigeria 1-1 South Africa (4-2 on penalties)
Nigeria booked their place in the AFCON final for the first time since their most recent triumph in 2013, edging past South Africa 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a thrilling semi-final clash.
Having kept four clean sheets ahead of their trip to Bouake, Nigeria travelled to face the South Africans brimming with confidence, although the semi-final contest promised to be a stern test for the Super Eagles.
Both sides struggle to establish a foothold in a cagey opening proceedings. But Bafana Bafana began to grow into the game, and it wasn’t long until they started causing Nigeria problems.
They crafted the first big chance of the game shortly before the half-hour mark as the ball broke kindly for talisman Percy Tau but his tame effort was routinely collected by Stanley Nwabali.
South Africa had Nigeria on the back foot, and Tau caused plenty of problems with his timely runs in behind the defence.
Bafana Bafana looked the more likely of the two sides to break the deadlock heading into the half-time interval, and they came close as Evidence Makgopa’s curled effort drew a smart save from Nwabali.
Nigeria had their impressive stopper to thank for heading into the interval with their clean sheet intact, and they emerged for the second half with renewed focus.
The first big chance of the second period fell to Victor Osimhen, but the Napoli marksman failed to hit the target with his close ranged header.
However, the 2023 African Player of the Year made up for his profligacy shortly after when his driving run into the box was halted by a clumsy challenge from Mothobi Mvala.
William Troost-Ekong stepped up to take the resulting penalty and squeezed an effort beyond Ronwen Williams to give Jose Peseiro’s side a crucial lead.
Considering Nigeria’s defensive prowess and exceptional record after scoring first, South Africa faced an uphill task of clipping the wings of the Eagles heading into the final 20 minutes of the clash.
They came within inches of snatching an equaliser when Makgopa dragged a powerful long-range effort narrowly wide, but there was still time for a dramatic twist in the dying embers.
Osimhen had effectively sealed victory for Nigeria with four minutes left to play, only for his tap-in to be ruled out after VAR spotted a late tackle from Alhassan Yusuf on Tau in the opposite penalty area during the build-up to the goal.
That revelation saw Nigeria go from a two-goal lead to within moments of being pegged back as South Africa were awarded a penalty of their own.
Teboho Mokoena held his nerve from the spot to level the scores in the final minute of regulation time.
South Africa had a chance to pull off a smash-and-grab win in the final seconds of injury time, but Khuliso Mudau blazed over with the goal at his mercy.
After a gut-wrenching finale, the Suger Eagles looked to regain their composure in extra time, and they were denied a clear-cut opportunity when Terem Moffi was denied a 1v1 with Williams via a last-ditch tackle from Grant Kekana.
Kekana was sent off, but Peseiro’s men were unable to capitalise on their numerical advantage as the contest headed to the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.
Nwabali emerged as the hero for the Super Eagles, saving two of South Africa’s opening three spot-kicks from Mokoena and Makgopa, allowing Kelechi Iheanacho to slot home the decisive penalty.
Ivory Coast 1-0 DR Congo
Sebastien Haller’s wonder goal was enough to send Ivory Coast to the AFCON final in a 1-0 victory over the Democratic Republic of Congo, furthering their ambition to become the first host nation to lift the coveted title since Egypt in 2006.
Congo gave Ivory Coast a massive scare inside the opening ten minutes after Cedric Bakambu poked into an empty net. But the goal didn’t stand as the ball was illegally taken off Yahia Fofana’s hands in the build-up.
The early reprieve sparked the host nation into life, and they began to establish a foothold in the game, but the opening period delivered a closely fought contest.
Wilfried Singo made himself a threat down the right flank, and his relentless foray into attack nearly paid off as he laid a cross on a plate for Haller.
But the Borussia Dortmund striker left the entire stadium in shock as he failed to hit the target from seven yards out.
Ivory Coast came close to breaking the deadlock shortly after as Franck Kessie latched on to a tempting lay-off from Max Gradel, but the ex-Barcelona ace smashed the base of the post with a left-footed strike.
Congo were lucky to head into the half-time interval level, but they nearly made Ivory Coast pay for their near-misses as Theo Bongonda’s mazy run culminated in a strike that only found the side netting.
Haller finally gave the hosts a well-deserved lead in the 65th minute, volleying Gradel’s cross into the ground, causing it to loop over the stranded Lionel Mpasi in Congo’s goal.
The 29-year-old could have easily bagged a hat-trick before the final whistle but directed a near-post header onto the roof of the net before dinking an audacious lob narrowly wide.
Congo can be proud of their deep run in the tournament, but they ultimately proved no match for the two-time AFCON winners.
They will face South Africa in a third-placed showdown on Saturday, while Ivory Coast will battle Nigeria in Sunday’s highly anticipated showpiece final.
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