In the end, it looked like it was a tight game. The manner of the win would suggest so. Nigeria scored first, South Africa pressed and pressed for an equaliser, got it and looked like getting the winner before an error from their goalkeeper gifted Nigeria the winner.
The game played like the typical script of a match where the best team lost while the win went to the undeserving team with a slice of luck. Yes, there was luck, but Nigeria were deserving of it. The Super Eagles dominated in all the decisive stats on Wednesday evening. From goals scored to chances created and attempts on goal, attempts off target and even corner kicks.
South Africa had come into the game brimming with confidence after their shock 1-0 win over hosts Egypt and after also coming out progressing out of the group of the death of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (2019). They also have matched the Super Eagles in their recent meetings, so they were up for it.
They started brightly, playing short passes around the Super Eagles’ midfield with Lebo Mothiba dropping deep to connect with Percy Tau. The Super Eagles, however, had their game plan, sitting deep and tight to defend and breaking away on the counter.
Nigeria’s deep defending frustrated the South Africans who could not find a way through. After curbing the early-minute enthusiasm of the South Africans, the Gernot Rohr team stepped up the gear.
Wilfried Ndidi had a chance to shoot from just outside the South Africa area but his effort went well over the bar. The Super Eagles managed the game to the 27th minute before Samuel Chukwueze struck to give Nigeria the lead.
It was Alex Iwobi who created the goal, using his quick feet to beat two defenders before cutting back into the South African box for an onrushing Chukwueze to finish twice, his first hitting the defender but he was quick to the ball to slot past South African goalkeeper Ronwen Williams to give Nigeria the lead.
The goal gave Chukwueze a lift and soon enough he was tormenting the South African defence. He was the only spark of a dull first half although, on two occasions, he couldn’t get the final ball into the opposition area.
The South Africans came out more determined to get something out of the game but they struggled to create chances despite dominating possession.
They would huff and puff all night.
The Super Eagles played the game with the calmness of an experienced side and almost doubled their lead in the 51st minute but Williams was quick to dive and got his hand on a freekick from Etebo which also went to hit the crossbar.
Despite sitting on the backfoot, Nigeria kept getting the chances through Ahmed Musa who gave South African right-back Thamsanqa Mkhize a torrid time on the left-hand side of Super Eagles attack.
If Musa had perfected his final ball, the Super Eagles of Nigeria would have had a three-goal lead. Chukwueze was still asking questions of the club’s defence while Alex Iwobi was making some linkup plays with Musa.
But out of nowhere, the Bafana Bafana got their equaliser with an assist from VAR.
It came from a free kick in the 73rd minute and Bongani Zungi was on hand in the Nigerian box to loop a header past goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi. The assistant referee was quick to raise his flag but there was VAR now, for the first time in the AFCON history, from the quarter-final stage of this edition.
Replays showed that the ball touched Odion Ighalo before getting to Zungi. Case closed.
In fairness, the South Africans deserved that goal. They had played some really nice football in the second half but failed in the final third to connect properly and create real chances.
They gained momentum after that goal, but the Super Eagles kept it together. Musa went past Mkhize several times but was let down every single time by his final ball.
Iwobi broke on a counter and switched the ball to his weaker left foot and tried to curl past William but his effort narrowly missed the target.
Moses Simon came on for Musa but he could not get better of Mkhize as his teammate did. He completed just one dribble against his marker but his cross was deflected for a corner.
The Super Eagles managed the game before they got the winning goal in the 89th minute through Troost-Ekong.
Moses crossed from a corner, Williams came out to catch it but missed it for Troost-Ekong to knee in an empty net for Nigeria’s winner.