The Super Eagles of Nigeria finally came of age as the Elephants were sent packing in Rustenburg. The famed Golden Generation of the Ivory Coast turned up as though victory was a guarantee but they came up short in almost every aspect of the game.
While few in the Ivorian set-up will ever want to think again of the King Bafokeng Stadium, the site will long provoke the warmest of memories for Super Eagles fans.
Their side took the lead through a top class Emmanuel Emenike drive, a player who is fast emerging as one of the tournament’s top performers. The Elephants fought back through Cheik Tioté, before Sunday Mba settled affairs with a deflected goal after a bold run through the middle of the park.
Much maligned for their Afcon performances to date, Nigeria looked a team reinvented here.
Their inventive play and proactive approach brought back memories of the great Super Eagles sides of the 1990s, banishing memories of the ugly draws in the group stage. By comparison, the Ivorians, so imperious in years gone by, looked off the pace and nowhere near as hungry as their West African opposition.
Victor Moses, so devastatingly effective in the final ten minutes against Ethiopia, was once again on terrific form for Naija. His ferocious running and tenacious directness caused problems time and time again for his illustrious opponents, even, at one point, forcing the ruffled Yaya Toure to bring him down with a primitive shoulder block.
Nigerian dominance eventually paid off before halftime, as John Obi Mikel set up Emmanuel Emenike—who had, moments earlier, shot wide from point-blank range—who fired the ball into the Ivorian net. Boubacar Barry perhaps could have done better than letting the ball pass through his arms, but the power and savageness of the strike is not to be underestimated.
The goal prompted glorious celebration in Nigeria, a nation who began to believe that they could pull off the unthinkable.
The state of euphoria didn’t last long beyond halftime. Salomon Kalou was booked for diving, but the incisive running before that moment was an indicator that Nigeria should begin to tighten up at the back. They didn’t, and after Efe Ambrose was forced into bringing down Didier Drogba, the Elephants drew level; Cheick Tiote capitalising on some poor Nigerian defending.
The goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, was furious with his static compatriots, but the damage had been done.
Both teams grew into the contest as the second half unfurled, both keen to attack and both carving out several half chances. Eventually, it was Nigeria that found the breakthrough, Sunday Mba ran boldly through the centre of the park, before his deflected shot ballooned over Copa and slid gracefully down the back of the net.
Mba’s inclusion into the squad had drawn criticism from some quarters, those who would have prepared the more prolific pair of Obafemi Martins and Peter Odemwingie.
His endeavour in this moment and throughout the contest, will have gone some way to appeasing those observers. By comparison, Didier Zokora, with "Maestro" written misguidedly on his shirt, was at fault in letting Mba ghost past him and he must surely be looking at the end of his international career.
A tense final period saw the Ivorians gently increase their efforts to find a second equaliser. John Obi Mikel, who I had compared unfavourably to Yaya Toure before the game, provided perhaps his most valuable contribution in a Nigeria shirt by tipping the ball away from Lacina Traore as the striker broke through—how crucial that interception would prove to be.
The result prompted ecstatic scenes in Rustenburg, as Stephen Keshi's men celebrated in disbelief at their progression and their passage. A semifinal tie with Mali awaits, with many in Nigeria surely pencilling their team in for a berth in the final.