By Arinze Ude
Nigeria’s Super Eagles booked their fifth semi-final spot in seven Nations Cup appearances on Sunday when they defied all odds to outplay and outrun their Ivorian counterparts.
Keshi’s men went into the game as underdogs against an Ivorian side that has been hailed as the Golden generation of Ivorian football.
The Nigerians have 17 players in their squad who are making their AFCON debuts compared to the experienced and organised Drogbas, Yaya Toures, Gervinhos, Zokoras, and Kalous in the Ivorian setup.
Didier Drogba was recalled to the Ivorian’s starting line up after missing his side’s 3-nil win against Tunisia and the sight of his name on the team sheet sent shivers down the spines of all Nigerian fans at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg and in diaspora.
Contrary to expectation, Nigeria started brighter than the Drogba-led Ivorians with Chelsea’s Victor Moses at the peak of the Eagles attack, unleashing a tremendous shot from 25 yards out before trying to pick out Brown Ideye and Emmanuel Emenike to no avail.
The Ivorians looked stunned and clueless and were lucky not to go behind when Emmanuel Emenike ballooned a glorious chance to put his side in front after he was played in by Brown Ideye.
Emenike atoned for that miss minutes later when he unleashed a thunderbolt from 25 yards with a short free kick on the 43rd minute, to give Nigeria the lead.
Nigeria took their one goal lead into the break but the Ivorians came back rejuvenated and fighting hard in the second half.
The Ivorians were awarded a route into the game when referee, Djamel Haimoudi gave them a freekick on the line of the Nigerian penalty area after Didier Drogba appeared to have dived.
The ex-Chelsea star picked himself up to whip in a delightful cross to the far post, where an unmarked Cheik Tiote rose above the Nigerian defence to head home the equaliser.
The goal sparked an end to end scuffle, with Brown Ideye failing to connect well with a Victor Moses’ corner before Yaya Toure pulled out a wonderful save from Nigerian keeper, Vincent Enyeama.
But it was Nigeria who went ahead for the second time in the game, as Sunday Mba dashed from his half to the oppponents’ half before unleashing a shot at the edge of the Ivorian penalty area.
The shot deflected off Leicester City defender, Bamba and lobbed past Barry in the Ivorian goal.
Cote D’Ivoire coaching staff responded by throwing on Max Gradel and Lacina Traore for Salomon Kalou and Romaric respectively as they searched for the leveller but Nigeria held on for a historic win to set up a semi-final clash against one of Stephen Keshi’s former sides, Mali.
An elated Stephen Keshi who gave an interview in English and French said after the match.
“I sincerely thank my players for everything they did today. I hope we can keep going to the final.
“Ivory Coast are the top team on the continent with lots of quality, so we tried to speed up and try to catch out players like Drogba and Yaya Toure.
“I’m glad my team is progressing in every game. There is great discipline in the team and I just hope we keep going that way.
“The boys showed character. When the Ivorians levelled we tried to defend and work out our tactics, and we scored again. Sunday came up with a beautiful, beautiful goal.”
Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi was disappointed with the outcome of the game. He said “I’m proud of my players’ work. I put forward the team I judged to be the best to pose problems to a good Nigerian side.
“Of course our aim was to win the title and for certain players this could be their last chance so, yes, there is disappointment in the dressing room.
“It’s a great sadness for me as the players were working with one objective – to win this Nations Cup – but it proved not to be enough.”
Ivory Coast’s Line Up:
01 Barry – 21 Eboue, 22 Bamba (Booked), 05 Zokora, 17 Tiene – 06 Romaric (Traore – 84′), 09 Tiote, 19 Y Toure (Booked) – 08 Kalou Booked (Gradel – 69′), 11 Drogba, 10 Gervinho
Subs: 16 Yeboah, 23 Sangare, 03 Boka, 04 K Toure, 14 Traore, 20 Lolo, 07 Razak, 13 Konan, 15 Gradel, 02 Kone, 12 Wilfred, 18 Traore
Nigeria’s Line Up:
01 Enyeama (Booked) – 05 Ambrose, 22 Omeruo, 14 Oboabona, 03 Echiejile – 17 Onazi (Booked), 10 Mikel, 19 Mba – 09 Emenike, 08 Ideye, 11 Moses (Yobo – 90′)
Subs: 16 Ejide, 23 Agbim, 02 Yobo, 06 Egwueke, 21 Oshaniwa, 04 Obiorah, 12 Gabriel, 20 Igiebor, 07 Musa, 15 Uche, 18 Uzoenyi
Ref: Djamel Haimoudi