Nigeria will join Senegal in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final after edging past South Africa 2-1 at the Cairo International Stadium.
The first half proved a heavily-contested affair but it was the Super Eagles who got their noses in front after a composed finish from Samuel Chukwueze with 27 minutes on the clock.
South Africa wouldn’t lie down after the restart and soon pulled back level through an expertly-taken Bongani Zungu header, though it would ultimately be heartache for Bafana Bafana as William Troost-Ekong headed home a goal of his own in the 89th minute to send Nigeria through.
It was a quarter-final evening of excruciating intensity in the Egyptian capital, but what did we learn?
1. Chukwueze vindicates starting berth
Having started the opening match against Burundi, Samuel Chukwueze subsequently found himself out of Gernot Rohr’s first-team plans for the following three matches, but he was brought back in this evening and ultimately vindicated the German’s decision to hand him a slot in his XI by opening his Nigeria account and shining from the flank.
With South Africa growing in momentum and confidence during the opening exchanges, the Super Eagles needed a moment of invention to ease nerves and relax tensions; cue Villarreal’s prodigiously gifted attacking tyro: Chukwueze.
As Ahmed Musa collected the ball on the left flank, he chested down before playing it to Alex Iwobi, who immediately danced and delivered a timely low drive into Chukwueze’s path. His initial first-time shot was blocked, but a fortuitous deflection took him through on goal, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Not only did the 20-year-old justify his selection with the opening goal, but this was his first for the West African nation, and if his performance this evening is anything to go by, he looks set for a long career in the famous green and white colours of Nigeria’s much-revered strip.
2. Another slow start for South Africa
Not renowned for their goalscoring prowess in this instalment of the continental competition, having netted only twice prior to this match, South Africa have once again failed to score a first half goal, and in truth, it was this slow start that ultimately cost them in Cairo.
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As Bafana Bafana looked to slow the tempo and nullify Nigeria’s pacy attack, their own forward line suffered in turn, as they failed to register a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes, which is quite simply, not good enough for a side who held aspirations of reaching the penultimate stage.
Percy Tau, so often the fulcrum of South Africa’s creativity, was largely thwarted by the streetwise defending of Jamilu Collins, while Lebo Mothiba didn’t quite have the requisite support to truly flourish in the final third – two shots on target across the whole match tells its own story.
3. Musa must add final product to his game
Ahmed Musa was devastating tonight in every aspect of the game, except his final ball. His movement was second to none, positioning excellent, pace frightening and delivery, well, exceptionally poor – Nigeria could have been home and dry were it not for his decision-making in the final third.
The 26-year-old has all the attributes to be an elite-level footballing, but the one chink in his armoury, the one tool missing from his repertoire is a refined end product. Add that to his game, and you have a ridiculously gifted forward.
If there is a reason why he failed to truly make the grade at Leicester City then it was probably down to his decision-making when he gets himself into key areas of the pitch; in his 33 matches for the Foxes across all competitions he failed to register a single assist.
For a winger of his innate ability, not to mention a propensity to surge into dangerous areas, that is an unforgivable return. Make no mistake, Musa is a real talent, and could yet return to one of Europe’s top five leagues, but he must first add this requisite element to his forward play before he can make the step up.
4. VAR proves worth
Introduced for the quarter-finals, VAR played a huge role this evening, with the revolutionary technology proving its worth by rightfully overturning an offside South Africa goal to give Stuart Baxter’s side a much-needed equaliser.
As Percy Tau whipped in a free-kick with 20 minutes left of regulation time, the ball appeared to flick off Thulani Hlatshwayo before Bongani Zungu lofted home a brilliantly timed header, only for the linesman to wave his flag and chalk off the goal.
On the initial replay the ball looked to have been deftly glanced on by Hlatshwayo, but on closer inspection the touch came off Odion Ighalo and upon consultation with the video assistant referee, Redouane Jiyed overruled his assistant on the byline and awarded the goal.
In a competition that, at times, has been crying out for VAR, its inclusion tonight was certainly justified by making the correct decision, and its presence will be much-welcomed in the closing stages of Egypt 2019.
5. Wayward Williams
When your side has fought so hard to find a route back into the match, the last thing any goalkeeper would want to do is produce a moment of madness, but that is exactly what happened in the closing stages of this quarter-final clash for Ronwen Williams.
Nigeria hadn’t been particularly successful from set-pieces this evening, but an 89th minute delivery from substitute Moses Simon caused all sorts of bedlam in the South Africa box, with Williams rushing off his line and punching at thin air, before William Troost-Ekong had the simplicity of netting into an open net.
In a fascinating encounter of this intensity, neither side deserved to go out with a goalkeeping blunder, but for Williams it was the worst way to exit the tournament.
The 27-year-old had looked a safe pair of hands having only conceded twice prior to this evening, while keeping a respectable clean sheet against Egypt, but this was a costly error from the SuperSport United shot-stopper, and South Africa ultimately paid the price.