While the rest of the big teams have crashed out of the tournament, Nigeria are going strong as each 2023 Africa Cup of Nations match passes.
They missed out on qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and their form leading up to this tournament left them with many doubters to prove wrong.
Now, the Super Eagles find themselves as the highest-ranked side remaining in Ivory Coast and a semi-final date with South Africa offers a path to the showpiece final on February 11.
The three-time AFCON winners are in the last four of this competition for the 16th time in their last 19 appearances to prove that they know how to navigate the knockout rounds of this tournament. There would certainly be less nerves and fear of crumbling under the pressure.
The manner in which Nigeria dispatched Angola, who are ranked 117th in the world and exceeded expectations to reach the last eight, shows that they are focused on the task at hand.
A surging run by Moses Simon down the left wing was followed by a calm pass to the arriving Ademola Lookman who slammed the ball high into the net in the 41st minute. With the lead secured, Nigeria came out for the second half keen to control the game which they could have won by more had Victor Osimhen’s 75th-minute header not been ruled out for offside by the video assistant referee (VAR).
Notably, Jose Peseiro’s backline has been unbreached since he switched to a three-man defence which has now kept four successive shutouts. Stanley Nwabali has also been a revelation between the sticks as he entered the history books with a fourth consecutive clean sheet in a major tournament.
That takes the Chippa United goalkeeper alongside Best Ogedegbe (1980) and Ike Shorunmu (2002) as the only men with four shutouts in a single AFCON for the Super Eagles. He has a unique chance to outrightly break the record in the remaining two matches.
The 27-year-old is excited to be competing against the country where he plays his club football:
“Both Cape Verde and South Africa are good teams, but I want to play against South Africa,” Nwabali told reporters.
“I really wish to see how my defence will fare against them.
“Yes, most of their players know me, and I also know them.”
Elsewhere, Nigeria have been rather modest in the goalscoring department but that is not for the lack of scoring chances, many of which have either been squandered or ruled out for infringements.
Game of slim margins
They nevertheless possess one of the most fearsome attacking departments on the continent and will be more pleased with their resolute defensive displays which always make a difference in knockout football.
In Victor Osimhen, there is a prolific forward who has stood out despite one goal and an assist in five games due to his relentless hard work, selflessness and physical presence upfront. As the team continues to grow into the tournament, there is no doubt that the African Player of The Year will immensely contribute to Nigeria’s fortunes.
The Super Eagles will however come face-to-face with Ronwen Williams in the Bafana Bafana goal following his stunning display against Cape Verde in the quarter-final. After a couple of important saves in the 120 minutes, Williams saved four penalties in the shootout to qualify the team for their first AFCON semi-final since 2000.
The South African defence have also kept four clean sheets so far but they have lost one game where they conceded two goals. They would thus be scratching their heads as to how best to limit Osimhen, but necessary caution must be paid to Simon’s trickery and Lookman’s devastating movement.
There is enough pace and adaptability in the Nigeria frontline while the midfield has been working tirelessly to help out in both phases of play. Humility and focus are required to navigate this tricky tournament in order to go all the way in Ivory Coast.
Any football game against South Africa has a lot riding on it due to the socio-cultural differences between both nations. Indeed, ‘The Amapiano Derby’ is a rivalry that goes beyond the football pitch.
For 90 to 120 minutes on Wednesday evening, both sets of players will be going into battle for a right to compete for African football’s biggest prize. However, it is Nigeria who have to step up to their pedigree as regular performers at this level.