CAIRO – Riyad Mahrez scored a stunning free-kick with virtually the last kick of the game as Algeria beat Nigeria to reach the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final.
A Riyad Mahrez freekick in added time killed Nigeria’s hopes of a fourth Africa Cup of Nations crown as the Super Eagles fell 2-1 to the Desert Foxes of Algeria in the semifinal of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations at the Cairo International Stadium.
Odion Ighalo’s calmly taken spot kick given after the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in the 71st minute had drawn Nigeria level after Algeria had taken the lead through William Troost-Ekong’s unfortunate own goal in the 40th minute.
But with spectre of extra time looming, it was the Desert Foxes who prevailed with Mahrez coming up with a true captain’s strike to send Algeria to a first AFCON final since 1990 when they beat Nigeria on home soil to win their only AFCON title.
In what was a repeat of the 1980 and 1990 AFCON finals, it was the Algerians who rose to the occasion while three-time champions Nigeria never really got going save for a few moments in the second half.
The first sign of what Nigeria was to endure in the game arrived in the 8th minute when Daniel Akpeyi failed to intercept Youcef Belaili’s cross from the right with Baghdad Bounedjah flashing his shot wide from close range.
The Super Eagles were taking time to settle while Algeria already hit their groove from the get-go. A series of lovely interchanges and silky movements provided a succession of half-chances in the 11th minute but the Nigerian defence withstood the pressure with Kenneth Omeruo eventually hoofing clear.
Algeria’s coach Djamel Belmadi made an enforced change to his line up with Mehdi Zeffane coming in for injured right-back Youcef Atal who had gone off injured in the quarterfinal against Ivory Coast.
Gernot Rohr, meanwhile, stuck with the side that ousted South Africa in the quarterfinals meaning that left-back Jamilu Collins and forward Samuel Chukwueze started consecutive matches for the first time in the tournament as Rohr named an unchanged side for just the first time in Egypt.
While Collins and Chukwueze were brilliant against South Africa – with Chukwueze named man-of-the-match in that encounter – both left-footers struggled to make an impact here with Collins especially struggling to keep up with Sofiane Feghouli and Riyad Mahrez who regularly found space on the left.
This was Nigeria’s first encounter with North African opposition in the tournament and although they had battled past opponents from South, West, Central and East Africa, the Super Eagles found it tough going in the first half against the Desert Foxes.
Where Algeria were smooth and silky on the ball, Nigeria were leggy and plodding, regularly failing to muster a string of passes together as they fell victim to Algeria’s high press.
The ball retention, incisive movement and speed of thought on display from Algeria was exceptional in the opening half hour and only a timely interception from Omeruo in the 19th minute and quick thinking by Akpeyi who sped off his line to save point-blank when Bounedjah had taken advantage of Omeruo’s indecision to break through in the 29th minute kept Nigeria from going behind.
Nigeria’s chances came from a succession of free kicks which were poorly taken with the most promising by Chukwueze failing to trouble Rais Mbolhi in the 31st minute.
But they should have gone ahead against the run of play in the 39th minute when Odion Ighalo dragged his shot wide when put through by Alex Iwobi when a better option would have been to feed Ahmed Musa who was free to the striker’s right.
That miss proved costly as in the very next sequence of play, Algeria took a richly deserved lead as they had always done all through the tournament.
Riyad Mahrez found space on the left and whipped in a cross which took a slight touch off the Collins’ foot. The deflected ball then bounced off William Troost-Ekong’s thigh beyond a helpless Akpeyi into the Eagles’ net.
While Nigeria had shown resolve and fight in their previous games, they found it hard to rally themselves this time around although they did show some fight after the interval and drew level from the spot after a lengthy VAR review.
Oghenekaro Etebo’s long-range strike struck the arm of Aissa Mandi and although play continued for a few minutes the attention of centre referee Bakary Papa Gasssama was called to a possible infringement and after a lengthy stoppage in play Gassama examined the screen and pointed to the spot from which Ighalo drew Nigeria level.
Algeria, however, were not cowed by conceding the leveler and showed greater intent even after Ighalo’s goal, dominating and creating the better chances.
Sofiane Feghouli could have won it for Algeria in the 89th minute after he executed a smart turn in the box but his shot sailed harmlessly over the bar and moments later Ismael Bennacer struck a thunderous effort off the crossbar.
Algeria were relentless and it seemed only a matter of time before they found they found a way through and when Etebo committed a foul on the edge of the box, he handed Algeria the key which Mahrez gladly seized to send a perfect curler into the bottom corner to send Algeria on a date with destiny where they would find Senegal who had earlier beaten Tunisia in the first semifinal waiting in store.