Nigeria will have the chance to win its first Africa Cup of Nations title since 2013 when they take on the tournament hosts, Ivory Coast, in the final tomorrow.
The Super Eagles booked its place in the final by overcoming South Africa on Wednesday, with the game having to be decided through a penalty shoot-out after the game finished 1-1 in normal time.
For South Africa, the wait goes on to win a second AFCON title, but the nation did manage to pull off one of the biggest scalps of the tournament by knocking out semi-finalists from the last FIFA World Cup, Morocco, in the quarter-finals.
The first half of the semi-final clash saw South Africa start conservatively before they soon grew into the contest as Percy Tau and Evidence Makgopa had good scoring opportunities, but both could not convert. Victor Osimhen did have a good chance for Nigeria before half-time, but he flashed his header wide of the post.
Just over an hour into the game, Osimhen provided the impact his side required as he won a penalty after bursting into the box and getting brought down by Mothobi Mvala. Skipper, William Troost-Ekong, converted the awarded spot-kick as he placed his penalty down the middle of the goal to put Nigeria 1-0 up.
As South Africa pushed to find an equaliser in the last few minutes of normal time, Nigeria were able to launch a devasting counterattack, with the move getting finished off by an Osimhen tap-in at the far post.
However, just as Osimhen wheeled away to celebrate, his goal was cancelled out by VAR. The referee looked back on the play and found not only was there a foul by Alhassan Yusuf on Tau, but that it was in the penalty box, so he awarded South Africa a penalty.
Teboho Mokoena remained calm and successfully scored his spot-kick to draw South Africa level. In the sixth and final minute of stoppage time, Khuliso Mudau squandered a great chance to put South Africa ahead as he blazed the rebound of Mokoena’s free-kick well over the bar.
During the second period of extra-time, South Africa were sent down to 10 men as a VAR review judged Grant Kekana to have fouled Terem Moffi in a goalscoring opportunity. However, as the foul occurred outside the penalty box, a free kick was awarded instead.
The game made its way to penalties, and after Moffi put Nigeria 1-0 ahead, Mokoena was unable to replicate his penalty effort from normal time for South Africa as Stanley Nwabali saved the strike. Both nations then converted their next penalties.
South Africa were gifted a way back into the shootout when Ola Aina completely missed the target for Nigeria. However, Makgopa failed to level the shoutout as his penalty was also saved by Nwabali, keeping Nigeria 2-1 in front.
The two sides were able to successfully put away their next spot-kicks before Kelechi Iheanacho scored the deciding penalty to send Nigeria through to the final.
Standing in the way of Nigeria winning its fourth AFCON title will be Ivory Coast after the tournament hosts edged out DR Congo in Wednesday’s second semi-final match.
After a goalless first half, Sebastien Haller scored what proved to be the game’s decisive goal in the 65th minute as he met Max-Alain Gradel’s cross with a right-footed strike to put Ivory Coast 1-0 in front.
The host nation was able to see the game out and will now have the chance to win a third AFCON title, with their last triumph coming in 2015.
A spot in the final represents a remarkable turnaround for Ivory Coast in this year’s AFCON as Jean-Louis Gasset was dismissed as the manager after a 4-0 thrashing by Equatorial Guinea in the final group stage match.
Despite that loss, Ivory Coast managed to secure a place in the knockout stages as they qualified as one of the four best third-placed nations in the group stage.
Interim manager, Emerse Fae, has now led the Elephants to three consecutive wins since, including a win over tournament holders, Senegal, in the round of 16.
Sunday’s final is a rematch from the group stage, as the two finalists played one another on matchday two, with Nigeria winning that contest 1-0.
Before the final, South Africa and DR Congo will meet in the match for third place on Saturday.