Nigeria’s quest for a fourth Africa Cup of Nations title failed to materialise on Sunday night in Abidjan as hosts Côte d’Ivoire came from a goal down to beat the Super Eagles 2-1 to claim their third continental crown. They previously won it 1992 and 2015.
Playing before a capacity 60,000 home fans cladded in Côte d’Ivoire’s orange colour inside the magnificent Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpe area of Abidjan, Nigerian on-field Captain, William Troost-Ekong headed the Super Eagles into the lead in the 38th minute. The former Watford central defender out-jumped Serge Aurier to give Nigeria the lead.
The Ivorians refused to stay down but kept on attacking Eagles with Sebastien Haller, Simon Adingra and Max Gradel the outstanding tormentor of Nigerian defence line marshaled by the pair of Semi Ajayi and Ekong in the central position. Ola Aina and Zaidu Sanusi similarly had their hands full from fire works from these Ivorians baying for blood from the left and right backs. The half ended with the lone Nigerian advantage.
However, on return from half time break, the Ivorians continued from where they stopped. They maintained their ball possession while Jose Peseiro wards were busy defending. The midfield didn’t exist as Alex Iwobi was completely off duty on this crucial night of championship football.
In the 62nd minute, Odilon Kossounou cracked an excellent low drive from 25 yards that was parried into corner by Nwabali.
The resultant corner kick in the 64th minute was neatly headed by Franck Kessie into the Nigerian goal for the equaliser that set the stadium with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, CAF President, Patrice Motsepe, former Arsenal Coach Arsene Wenger and Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara alive.
Few minutes later, Ivorian Adingra’s booming volley almost caught Nwabali napping, but was parried out.
The Elephants who dominated play, having over 60 per cent ball possession for the most part of the game, went on the offensive deep into the Nigerian half.
It however paid off handsomely as the Elephants shot into the lead in the 81st minute with Haller netting the winner from an Adingra cross.
Haller lifted his right foot above Ekong’s waist to side-tap the ball far beyond Nwabali’s reach.
In desperate search for equaliser, Nigerian coach pulled out Alex Iwobi for Alhassan Yusuf. Ademola Lookman also got substituted by Kelechi Iheanacho while Joe Aribo also came in for Zaidu Sanusi. Terem Moffi completed the substitution replacing Frank Onyeka.
In the dying minutes, all attempts by Nigeria’s attack to drag the game into extra time failed.
It was a fitting end for the hosts who almost crashed out of the tournament at the group stage but got lifeline from Morocco. They qualified for the knockout round as one of the four best third placed teams from the group stage.
Earlier in the third place match on Saturday, Ronwen Williams was the hero once more as South Africa’s Bafana Bafana defeated DR Congo 6-5 in penalty shootouts to pick the bronze.
The victory was South Africa’s best outing in the tournament in 24 years.
First, DR Congo captain Chancel Mbemba had the chance to win it, only for Williams to block, before Meshack Elia’s penalty was also saved.
The game, which ended goalless, went straight to penalties after 90 minutes.
After losing their semi-final to Nigeria on spot-kicks, South Africa became the first team to play three straight AFCON shootouts after Williams had saved four penalties in the quarter-final win against Cape Verde.