The fearsome Nigeria juggernaut rolled with pomp into the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals on Friday, after another self-assured performance that knocked ambitious Angola out of the competition and booked their flight tickets back home.
In doing so, the Class of 2024 has in some way avenged the disappointment of Nigeria staying at home for the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals while the Palancas Negras travelled to Germany at their expense, and for Samuel Okwaraji’s death in a 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against the Angolans at the National Stadium, Lagos thirty four-and-half years ago.
The Sable Antelopes were looking for a first-ever Africa Cup of Nations semi-final appearance, but they were abject underdogs against Nigeria that had made the semi finals on 15 occasions in their 19 previous appearances.
Before kick-off, top striker Gelson Dala was the competition’s second top scorer with four goals, and Coach Pedro Goncalves said his boys would throw everything into the encounter to realise their dreams.
In-form Nigeria had other ideas, and although Victor Osimhen’s header off a sweet lift from Frank Onyeka in the quarter-hour went too high and the Africa Player of the Year saw another header palmed by goalkeeper Dominique, and another one went slightly away, Ademola Lookman got them in front in the 41st minute, rifling to the roof a pass from the left by Moses Simon, as the striker escaped the attention of Jonathan Buatu and held the ball long enough for the advancing Lookman.
As they have done almost all tournament, the Eagles played a tidy game and managed the game well, and despite Angola’s efforts in the second period, the three-time champions still dominated and looked very dangerous on the counter.
Three minutes into the second half, Zaidu Sanusi flashed over the bar from close range and 10 minutes later, Calvin Bassey also headed over the sticks. However, in the 59th minute, a mistake in the midfield allowed the southern Africans sight of goal, and in a rare moment the ball got past Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali. But they were denied by the upright.
With 15 minutes left, Nigeria thought they had a second goal when Osimhen’s powerful header was punched into the net by Dominique, but Senegalese referee Issa Sy declared that he was marginally offside.
Not done, Osimhen again wriggled away from the attentions of several defenders and had sight of goal, but his 81st minute effort was blocked by Buatu.
With a minute left of regulation time, Nwabali confidently punched away a shot by Pacienca, and the Eagles were in the semi-finals of the 34th Africa Cup of Nations finals.
They will take on the winner of Saturday’s quarter-final duel between Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks and the Bafana Bafana of South Africa. That semi-final encounter is scheduled for the Stade de la Paix in Bouake on Wednesday.