11 July 2019
Nigeria’s big central defender William Troost-Ekong was the man for the big occasion for his country as he scored the winner with two minutes of regular time left in a pulsating Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal in Cairo. The game was tied 1-1 and seemed heading towards extra time when winger Moses Simon, who had come on in the 80th minute for captain Ahmed Musa, swung in a corner that should have been either saved or punched away easily by Ronwen Williams in the South Africa goal. Instead, he flapped at the cross, leaving Troost-Ekong to sneak in at the back-post and tap into an unprotected goal. It was pure anguish for South Africa and ecstasy for the Nigerians.
However, Nigeria should have put the game to bed long before the dramatic finish. While South Africa had most of the ball, Nigeria had the better chances. South Africa coach Stuart Baxter said before the game that they had to deny supply of the ball to Nigerian hitman Odion Ighalo. That seemed to have worked, as Ighalo, who has three goals in the tournament, hardly had a sniff at Williams’ goal. The Nigerian midfield struggled to keep possession and usually lost it when trying to play the forward ball.
South Africa forced the issue for much of the first half, while Nigeria seemed to lack ideas, preferring to sit back and exploit the pace of Musa on the left and Samuel Chukwueze on the right. Nigeria’s best move came on the break after 26 minutes when Ighalo put Musa through, only for the winger to fumble his attempt at a cross. Musa’s lack of end product was a frustrating feature all game. Chukwueze, on the other flank, was causing South Africa more problems. And Nigeria made the breakthrough close to the half hour mark when Alex Iwobi ghosted past his marker down the left and cut the ball back to Chukwueze. The Villareal winger’s shot rebounded favourably back to him and he tucked in his first goal for his country on his fifth appearance.
Watch the highlights below:
Chukwueze started growing in confidence after his goal and beat two defenders down the right flank with four minutes remaining in the first half, only to see his effort blocked.
The same pattern continued after the break, with South Africa trying to ask the Nigerian defence more questions, but hardly threatening Daniel Akpeyi in the Nigerian goal, who plays his league football for Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa. Nigeria were content to sit back and counter. They nearly doubled their lead early in the second half when Peter Etebo’s 25 yard free kick was touched onto the bar by Williams. With a bit more composure from Chukwueze and especially Musa with their final ball, South African hopes would have been dashed a lot earlier in the game. Instead, the game remained finely poised by 71 minutes when a South African free kick looked at first glance to have been flicked on by a South African to midfielder Bongani Zungu, who looped his header beyond Akpeyi from a clear offside position. The assistant referee had his flag up, but the referee had to consult the Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) which confirmed that Ighalo had the last touch before the ball got to Zungu. So the goal stood.
South Africa were in the ascendancy after the equaliser. They were more energetic and looked the most likely to benefit from extra time, as Nigeria continued to play on the counter. Musa continued to fluff his lines and Iwobi threatened with a left footer with 11 minutes left. Then Williams gifted Nigeria the winner with his moment of madness. Ighalo had to wait till the 91st minute to get a clear sight at goal and he was foiled one on one by Williams, which proved to be little consolation for the SuperSport United keeper.
Nigeria will face the winner of today’s clash between Algeria and Ivory Coast. It’s still not clear if coach Gernot Rohr’s approach of allowing opponents dominate possession will prove to be a winning formula, albeit not pleasing to the eye. Nigeria just had 39% possession against South Africa. Rohr said after the match: “We had a plan, it was working, we scored, we failed to score a second goal. What I like in my team is that they never give up, they are never down, and they came back in the last minute, so this can take us very far.” Rohr’s opposite number, Baxter, said: “We only missed out against a very organised team”, adding, “I congratulate Nigeria and warn whoever has to face them”.