Nigeria beat Cote d’Ivoire 2-1
THEY were touted as the best team of the tournament. Even by FIFA rankings, they sit atop all African nations despite being 22nd in the world. And still, they parade a galaxy of renowned footballers, including the current African Footballer of the Year, Yaya Toure.
So, before Sunday’s encounter between the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria’s Super Eagles, all the pundits had given victory to Didier Drogba and his team mates owing to the pedigree of the players, who were seen as the ‘Golden Generation’ of African football.
But a fired up Nigerian team, led by irrepressible goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, had a different idea. His boys wanted to make names for themselves, and they did it in style.
It is befitting that the hero of the day was Sunday Mba, a home-based player, who just left Warri Wolves to team up with Enugu Rangers.
The game kicked off with the Ivoiriens prancing about the pitch as if they came to dine with toddlers. But the force with which the Eagles took off the block jolted them.
Nigeria took the lead against the lethargic Elephants through a wonderful Emmanuel Emenike strike, before Cheik Tiote equalised with a header just after the interval.
In an engrossing second half, Sunday Mba wrote his name in Nigerian folklore by finishing a solo run with a deflected finish past Boubacar Barry.
For the first half of action, it seemed like the Super Eagles had turned back the clock and rolled back the years.
Gone were the timidity and the nervousness that characterised their dull group encounters, the side looked bold and brave. In comparison, the Ivoiriens, so well fancied before the tournament, looked laborious and lethargic – their casual approach matching the unprofessional nicknames on some of their shirts.
It felt like 1994 as the Super Eagles burst forward. Victor Moses, the nation’s saviour against Ethiopia, was once again influential – his tenacious running and ferocious speed constantly causing problems for the Ivoirien defenders. Emmanuel Emenike was also looking to capture the form of the opening 45 minutes against Burkina Faso, although the striker fired over from near point-blank range in the first half.
With the interval approaching, Nigerian enterprise eventually paid off. Soon after Yaya Toure had been forced into a shoulder block to curtail Moses’ advance, the Super Eagles won a free kick 30 yards out. John Obi Mikel laid the ball off, and Emenike, with the weight of 19 years of anguish behind him, fired the ball over the wall into the goal. Perhaps Barry in the Ivoirien goal should have done better, but a few in Nigeria cared, as the finish sparked furious celebration among their massed ranks.
The euphoria of the first half was not to last into the second. Moments after Salomon Kalou had been cautioned for simulation in the Nigerian box, Didier Drogba conned the referee into erroneously awarding a free kick to Cote d’Ivoire, claiming Efe Ambrose brought him down.
It was the Super Eagles’ moment to look inert, and they were promptly punished as Cheick Tiote headed the ball past Enyeama. The keeper promptly remonstrated with his static defence, but the damage had been done.
The second half unrolled with both sides looking to attack, and creating a number of opportunities. Elderson went close with a blocked shot when Moses was perhaps better placed. The miss threatened to be costly, that was, until Sunday Mba decided to introduce himself into the game’s narrative.
Running boldly at the Ivoirien defence, the striker, included at the expense of the likes of Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins, sent a deflected shot up and over Boubacar Barry.
It prompted ecstatic scenes in Rustenburg, as Stephen Keshi’s men played out a nervy final 10 minutes as the Ivoiriens pushed. John Obi Mikel must get a mention for a terrific tackle on Traore, but the whole team will be heralded as heroes after a glorious victory and well-deserved progression.
Nigeria now faces Mali in the semi-final on Wednesday.