Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali was the hero yesterday, as the Super Eagles survived a determined South Africa, to qualify for the final of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire.
With the game poised at 1-1 after 120 minutes of normal and added time, the South Africa-based goalkeeper rose to the occasion, saving two penalty kicks as the Super Eagles beat the Bafana Bafana, whose goalkeeper, Ronwem Williams, is renowned for his penalty saving heroics.
Yesterday in Bouake, Williams found the Nigerian players too clinical in their kicks as he failed to get close to saving any of the Eagles’ five kicks.
Substitute Kelechi Iheanacho converted the winning penalty as Nigeria held their nerve for a 4-2 shootout win.
Nigeria opened scores in normal time through skipper William Troost-Ekong’s spot-kick and looked to be coasting home, particularly when Victor Osimhen turned the ball home with five minutes remaining.
VAR, however, upturned the goal and instead awarded a penalty to South Africa for a foul in the build-up. Teboho Mokoena converted to force extra time, and penalties followed.
Mokoena could not repeat the trick in the shootout and while Ola Aina blasted his penalty over the bar, Evidence Makgopa’s miss handed the advantage back to the Super Eagles. Iheanacho had the chance to win it and did just that to take the Super Eagles to their first final since 2013.
South Africa dominated the opening half, but it was largely a nervy semifinal, between two sides, who went into the match having kept four consecutive clean sheets at AFCON.
Nigeria improved after the break, pushing South Africa back and building the pressure, with Osimhen threatening to open the scoring as he headed over at the back post.
The goal came midway through the second half, Osimhen unsurprisingly involved. He drifted past the challenges, drove into the box and went down as Mothobi Mvala stuck out a leg and tripped him.
Captain Troost-Ekong stepped up, to face a goalkeeper in Williams who saved four penalties in the South Africa’s quarterfinal shootout win over Cape Verde. He could well have saved this one too, but Troost-Ekong’s spot-kick crept underneath him and into the back of the net.
The Super Eagles controlled the match well from that point and thought they had taken doubled their advantage with five minutes remaining, as Osimhen turned the ball home from a couple of yards out after good work from Osayi-Samuel.
But a VAR check deemed that Percy Tau had been fouled in the box at the other end in the build-up, as the referee returned from the monitor to disallow Osimhen’s goal and award South Africa a penalty in a remarkable turn of events.
That allowed Mokoena to equalise and, as the clock ticked into the 90th minute, he made no mistake from the spot.
South Africa piled on the pressure deep into stoppage time and should have won it, as Mokoena’s free-kick was parried out and Khuliso Mudau blasted over the rebound with the goal at his mercy.
Terem Moffi was introduced with 10 minutes of extra time remaining, replacing Osimhen, and almost immediately he was clear on goal. Grant Kekana brought him down just outside the box, and although the referee initially waved play on, the South Africa defender was shown a straight red card after a VAR review.
With no winner after 120 minutes, the teams resorted to the penalty lottery to decide the winner and Nigeria proved the better side from the spot.