CAIRO – Nigeria sauntered past South Africa into the semifinals of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with William Troost-Ekong’s perfectly timed header giving the Super Eagles a 2-1 win over Bafana Bafana at a sweltering Cairo International Stadium.
Nigeria had taken the lead after twenty-six minutes through Samuel Chukwueze’s first ever international goal before South Africa drew level in the second half with a first-ever goal against Nigeria in AFCON history when the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) introduced at the tournament from the quarterfinals stage ruled Bongani Zungu 70th minute as a goal after Moroccan official Redouane Jiyed had initially ruled the goal out for offside.
Rohr had insisted before the game that the South Africans’ feat of ousting pre-tournament favourites and hosts Egypt meant they were now “favourites number one”.
Rohr’s attempt to play the underdog might have fooled no one but, if the message had been to ensure his players didn’t get complacent against opponents that showed incredible mettle against The Pharaohs and beat Nigeria and held them to a draw during the qualifiers, the message was certainly well received with the Super Eagles racing out of the blocks at the first blast of the whistle.
Nigeria’s intent was already clear by 48 seconds when Musa – brilliant throughout – burst down the left flank to lay an inviting cross for Ighalo who was penalized for a push on Thulani Hlatshwayo in an attempt to reach the ball. Wilfred Ndidi then shot over from the edge of the box after good combination play between Musa and Alex Iwobi who then teed the Leicester City midfielder.
Bafana Bafana had snuck into the last 16 as one of four best third-placed teams after suffering two losses and scoring just once in the group stage. Their play throughout the tournament, however, have been full of verve and pace down the flanks but Rohr’s setup which saw the introduction of two left-footers in Samuel Chukwueze and Jamilu Collins for his first appearance for Moses Simon and Ola Aina brilliantly nullified the South Africans who named an unchanged lineup from their last 16 tie against Egypt.
Indeed, it was Bafana Bafana who resorted to physicality in an ultimately futile bid to deal with the dynamism and brilliance of the Super Eagles. S’Fiso Hlanti was lucky to escape being sent off for a truly horrendous challenge on Chidozie Awaziem after seven minutes but Lebo Mothiba wasn’t so lucky earning the game’s first yellow for a pull on the Nigerian defender six minutes later.
It was a half of few clear-cut chances but Nigeria were asking all the pressing questions with Musa on the left particularly persistent. The Al Nassr forward burst past Innocent Mkhize but his lovely cross for Odion Ighalo was cut out by the South African defence although there were suspicions of handball.
Musa, however, was not to be put off and he was at it a minute later, driving down the left flank to set Alex Iwobi free, who dribbled past his man to lay a lovely cross that was first met by Ighalo whose shot was blocked before Chukwueze latched onto the rebound to put the Super Eagles ahead after twenty-six minutes.
The delirious celebration in the stans which followed the goal left no one in doubt about where the support of local fans lay as they cheered every attacking move of the Super Eagles.
Clearly buoyed by the goal, Nigeria put unrelenting pressure on Bafana Bafana with Musa who had Mkhize on toast every time proving a thorn in the flesh of Bafana Bafana backline twice breaking through in the 34th and 37th minute but his final ball was cut off in the first instance before Chukwueze shot wildly over in the second instance.
Bafana Bafana didn’t have a chance worthy of the name until a freekick in the 44th minute which came off the Nigerian wall as Nigeria went into the break well and truly ahead.
The Super Eagles resumed the second period with gusto as both sides came out unchanged and Nigeria could have gone ahead in the 48th minute but Oghenekaro Etebo’s venomous freekick was tipped onto the bar by Ronwen Williams in goal for South Africa.
Musa was tormenting Mkhize down the left and another drive past the defender led to Hlatshwayo nearly putting the ball past his own goalkeeper from Musa’s cross in the 53rd minute. Chukwueze then put in a cross in the 56th minute which was narrowly missed by a despairing Ighalo.
South Africa had weathered the storm against Egypt only scoring after 85 minutes and they duly persevered against Nigeria soaking up all the pressure before showing a bit of spirit later on.
They came out in numbers as they enjoyed a spell of pressure earning a freekick on the 70th-minute mark from which Bongani Zungu scored but his goal was ruled out initially before a lengthy VAR check confirmed South Africa’s first ever goal against Nigeria in AFCON history.
The Super Eagles had shown great spirit against defending champions Cameroon to come back from two goals down to win in the round of 16 and with time running out, they maintained composure, patiently probing with Moses Simon who had replaced Musa particularly effective on the left flank.
Simon won a corner in the 88th minute and after it was put out for another corner, the winger took telepathically guided second to locate Troost-Ekong who was nicely placed to send Nigeria through to the semifinals with a first win in six games against Bafana Bafana who must now wait to earn a first-ever win against Nigeria in AFCON history.