Nigeria stepped into the Championship Match of the 34th Africa Cup of Nations after a turgid 120 minutes battle with South Africa that eventually went into a nail-biting penalty shootout in Cote d’Ivoire’s second city, Bouake on Wednesday.
The game ended 1-1 after extra time and the Super Eagles triumphed 4-2 after penalties.
It was dubbed the “Ampiano Derby’ but there was so much piggybacking on the game, and as the players stepped onto the turf of the Stade de la Paix, it was obvious that they were determined to fight a ‘war’.
Sphephelo Sithole got his leg to a through ball as the Bafana Bafana poured forward in the quarter-hour, but Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali would never be beaten that way.
Minutes later, Victor Osimhen and Ademola Lookman combined to pull something out of the chestnut, but the defence line of Teboho Mokoena, Aubrey Mobida and Siyanda Xulu was very much alert.
Nwabali was again on the alert in the 28th minute to break the heart of Percy Tau.
Nine minutes later, Alex Iwobi’s shot from the edge of the box was too feeble to rattle goalkeeper and captain Ronwen Williams.
In the 39th minute, Nwabali again denied Tau as the forward concocted a chip.
At the other end, Osimhen failed to direct his header well when Ola Aina sped down the left and heaved the ball into the opposition box.
Osimhen again failed to direct his header properly in the 57th minute.
Eight minutes later, Nigeria earned a penalty after the tireless Osimhen was upended in the box as he went on a sharp solo.
William Troost-Ekong made no mistake from the spot.
In the 72nd minute, the combination of Osimhen, substitute Chukwueze and Lookman had the Bafana defence flat-footed, only for Osimhen to get too much purchase on the ball when he tried to find Lookman for the final delivery.
Evidence Magkopa got behind the Nigeria defence in the 75th minute and watched his fierce shot roll aimlessly away.
For a response, Chukwueze and Aribo combined to set Lookman free in the middle, but the striker was checkmated.
With five minutes left, the Eagles broke forward in a sweeping team move.
The irrepressible Lookman sped away from the middle and found Bright Osayi-Samuel on the right, and the defender’s cross screened goalkeeper Williams to allow Osimhen a simple tap-in.
After ruling it a goal, Egyptian referee Amin Mohamed Omar’s attention was called to an earlier incident in the Nigerian box, and he, instead, awarded a penalty to South Africa, converted by Teboho Mokoena.
In extra time, Lookman watched his shot parried by Williams, who then saved a shot by Osimhen.
Osimhen headed just slightly over the bar as Nigeria searched for a means to end the encounter without going into penalty shootout.
In the ensuing penalty shootout, Williams, who had saved four in the shootout against Cape Verde that saw the Bafana Bafana reach the last four, could not stop any of Nigeria’s kicks with only Ola Aina booting his kick over the bar.
Terem Moffi, Kenneth Omeruo, Troost-Ekong and Kelechi Iheanacho all scored, while Nwabali saved two of South Africa’s kicks and was duly named Man of the Match.
In the event, Nigeria will play in the Final of the continent’s flagship football competition for the eighth time.
The Super Eagles will take on tournament surprise team and hosts Cote d’Ivoire in the Final on Sunday night at the 60,000 – capacity Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpe, outside Abidjan.