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Nigeria and Ivory Coast in Afcon final

Kelechi Iheanacho scored the winning penalty as Nigeria booked their place in the final of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations with a 4-2 shootout win over South Africa.

The game in Bouake finished 1-1 following a remarkable end to normal time which involved the referee going to his video monitor to disallow a Victor Osimhen strike which would have put Nigeria 2-0 up – and instead awarding a penalty to South Africa.

But Mokoena was one of two South African players to see their spot-kicks saved by goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali as the Super Eagles triumphed to reach Sunday’s final, where they will play Ivory Coast after the hosts beat DR Congo.

William Troost-Ekong had opened the scoring for the West Africans with a penalty midway through the second half, and will now be looking to captain Nigeria to their fourth continental title – and a first since 2013.

Super Eagles overcome South Africa again

William Troost-Ekong (centre) celebrates scoring a penalty for Nigeria against South Africa at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations
William Troost-Ekong (centre) had scored the winner when Nigeria beat South Africa in the quarter-finals at the 2019 Afcon finals in Egypt

Nigeria went into the game with a perfect Nations Cup record against South Africa, having beaten Bafana Bafana in all three of their previous meetings in the competition including a semi-final meeting in 2000 in Lagos.

But despite being urged on by the cacophonous horn section carried by the supporters in green and white, Jose Peseiro’s side failed to live up their billing as favourites in a ponderous first half which South Africa largely bossed.

Forward Percy Tau had their best chance, scuffing his shot straight at Nwabali when unmarked inside the penalty area.

Nigeria’s lack of potency was reflected in the statistics, with African Footballer of the Year Osimhen only managing nine touches in the half, including a header which went wide just before the break.

But things then livened up notably as Nigeria came out with greater intent in the second half.

Osimhen put one of several presentable headed opportunities over the bar before Frank Onyeka blazed wastefully wide.

The Super Eagles finally broke the deadlock in the 67th minute when Osimhen’s driving run was abruptly ended inside the penalty area by a poor challenge from defender Mothobi Mvala.

As in the group stage win against Ivory Coast, it was captain Troost-Ekong who assumed penalty duties rather than Osimhen.

And the former Watford defender sent his effort down the middle and under the legs of Ronwen Williams, the shootout hero for South Africa in the quarter-final win over Cape Verde, as the goalkeeper dived to his left.

After Evidence Makgopa had fizzed a skimming effort just wide for South Africa, Ademola Lookman should have won it for Nigeria but hesitated when trying to round Williams, allowing the keeper to dive at his feet and gather the ball.

Late VAR drama denies Osimhen

With just five minutes of normal time remaining, Osimhen thought he had clinched victory, turning home Bright Osayi-Samuel’s low cross following a swift counter-attack and sprinting towards the Nigeria fans for a celebration that was short-lived.

South Africa’s players were already protesting before referee Amin Omar was advised to go to the monitor by the video assistant referee, with the Egyptian quickly ruling out Osimhen’s strike and, in yet another late twist at this remarkable tournament, pointing to the spot at the other end for an earlier foul on Tau by Alhassan Yusuf.

Mokoena kept his calm to convert the penalty and deny Nigeria five consecutive clean sheets – and South Africa should have won it in the six minutes of added time when Khuliso Mudau only succeeded in blazing over after Nwabali parried Mokoena’s free-kick into his path.

Williams saved efforts from Lookman and Osimhen early in extra time but the best opening came when Terem Moffi latched on to a through ball and ran powerfully towards the South Africa goal.

But Kekana stopped the substitute’s run with a trip and, following a VAR review, was shown a straight red card and Nigeria were awarded a free-kick just outside the area.

Iheanacho drew a save from Williams from the set piece but decided the shootout after Nwabali had saved from Mokoena and Makgopa, with the Bafana Bafana captain unable to repeat his heroics from the last eight.

Stanley Nwabali saves a penalty for Nigeria against South Africa
Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali plays his club football in South Africa for Chippa United

Meanwhile, Sebastien Haller scored the winner as 2023 Africa Cup of Nations hosts Ivory Coast beat DR Congo to set up a final meeting with Nigeria.

The only goal of a cagey contest in Abidjan came in the 65th minute when Haller’s volley bounced down into the ground and up over Leopards goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi.

The Borussia Dortmund striker should have opened the scoring just before the break with an unmarked header, while he also missed a chance to double the lead when sending a lob narrowly wide.

DR Congo did not look like getting a late equaliser, although Meschack Elia sent a volley wide of the left-hand upright and Simon Banza then fired well over in injury time.

Ivory Coast had sacked Jean-Louis Gasset as boss before scraping through the group stage, and had needed late goals against both Senegal and Mali to progress to the last four.

But interim boss Emerse Fae now has a chance to guide the Elephants to a third continental title, adding to triumphs in 1992 and 2015, when they face three-time winners Nigeria in Abidjan on Sunday (20:00 GMT).

The Super Eagles had reached the final earlier on Wednesday after beating South Africa 4-2 on penalties following a dramatic 1-1 draw in Bouake.

The match was the first time the tournament hosts had returned to the Alassane Ouattara Stadium since suffering a chastening 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea which had left the West Africans on the brink of exiting the finals after just three games.

Fae made four changes to the side which grabbed a 90th-minute equaliser and a 122nd-minute winner against Mali, with captain Serge Aurier, centre-back Odilon Kossounou and forward Christian Kouame all suspended.

Meanwhile, the DR Congo squad staged a protest during the anthems with players and coach Sebastien Desabre covering their mouths and pointing to the side of their heads to call for peace in the eastern part of the country.

The Leopards threatened from first-half corners, with Haller forced into a diving header to clear one at the near post before Elephants keeper Yahia Fofana flapped at the next delivery.

Cedric Bakambu headed in the loose ball and wheeled away in celebration but referee Ibrahim Mutaz had already blown his whistle, ruling that Elia had kicked the ball out of Fofana’s hands.

Meanwhile the delivery of Ivorian right-back Wilfried Singo was causing problems at the other end, with Simon Adingra planting a header wide of goal before Haller missed a glorious chance five minutes before half-time when he mis-timed his effort wide from eight yards out.

There was still time before the break for Elephants midfielder Franck Kessie to strike the left-hand post with a fierce strike.

Haller strike puts hosts through

Sebastien Haller scores against DR Congo
Ivory Coast striker Sebastien Haller scored the only goal with what was his first shot on target at the 2023 Afcon finals

Three minutes after the restart, Theo Bongonda almost put DR Congo ahead but the half-time substitute could only fire into the side-netting after bursting into the area and thrillingly wriggling past two defenders.

Mpasi parried away another powerful shot from Kessi but the Leopards stopper was unfortunate with what proved to be the winner.

Haller dropped back to meet Max-Alain Gradel’s cross from the right with a first-time volley from about 13 yards out, and the bounce of the ball caught out Mpasi as it dipped just under his crossbar.

Sending a flicked header from a corner over the bar, the involved Haller was then narrowly off target with his lobbed attempt from outside the box after a poor defensive header gifted him the chance to wrap up the tie.

Two-time champions themselves, but not since 1974, DR Congo had drawn their first four games at the finals but could not find a way back into the match after coming from behind to beat Guinea in the quarter-finals.

Ivory Coast become the first hosts to reach an Afcon final since Egypt in 2006 – with the Pharaohs also the most recent side to lift the trophy on home soil that year.

After a tournament of underdog success and surprise results, Ivory Coast fans can now look forward to a heavyweight clash with Nigeria following a path through the finals which has already involved several dramatic twists and turns.

It could also cap a remarkable journey for Fae, the 40-year-old former Nantes, Reading and Nice midfielder, who could win Africa’s most prestigious trophy in just his fourth game in charge of his country.