With just four teams now left in the tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations was whittled down to its most worthy candidates on Sunday, including the ejection of title favourites, Ivory Coast, to Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria.
Later on in the evening, Burkina Faso and Togo saw out a far more laboured affair, and it was only when Jonathan Pitroipa opened the score on the edge of extra time half-time that the deadlock was broken.
Ivory Coast started their day in bright enough fashion, and considering the way in which they and Nigeria respectively qualified from the group stages, it’s not hard to see just why that was the case.
The Super Eagles had only just managed to squeeze into the quarterfinals through some late heroics courtesy of Chelsea’s Victor Moses, who was just as effective against the Elephants.
That being said, Nigeria appeared to put any previous doubts to bed in Rustenburg and never looked short of confidence in their underdog victory over a side regularly billed as the best that Africa has to offer.
Emmanuel Emenike fluffed his lines on one or two occasions in the first half, putting to waste some considerable Nigerian pressure, but the Spartak Moscow didn’t miss the target in the 43rd minute, thundering home a 30-yard free kick to nudge the Nigerians into the lead.
However, the Eagles were pegged back just several minutes into the second half as Cheick Tiote, probably one of the smallest players on the pitch, managed to latch onto a Gervinho free kick and head the favourites level.
However good Emenike’s goal—his third of the competition—might have been, the best of Sunday’s clash undoubtedly goes to the man who was always bound to prove the difference given the timing, Sunday Mba.
The Pepsi Football academy graduate, currently of Warri Wolves in his native Nigeria, will have raised more than a few eyebrows with a rampaging run from his own half before seeing his shot deflected off Sol Bamba and over Ivorian stopper Boubacar Barry.
While the finish may have been fortunate, Mba’s 78th-minute winner, attached, symbolised the resilient and unrelenting display put on by Stephen Keshi’s side against Ivory Coast, completely deserving of their place in Wednesday’s semifinal.
After the game, BBC journalist John Bennett tweeted that the inexperienced Elephants manager, Sabri Lamouchi, could be fired following the loss, according to Ivory Coast defender Sol Bamba.
Ivory Coast's Sol Bamba tells me "we want the coach to stay but in Africa if you lose a game they sack the coach. I hope it's not the case"— John Bennett (@JohnBennettBBC) February 3, 2013
Over at the Mbomdela Stadium in Nelspruit, the encounter between Burkina Faso and Togo didn’t quite live up to the standards put on earlier that day, although it was never quite going to.
Togo’s Floyd Ayite had the only real scoring chance in the first 45 minutes before things livened up in the second period, Emmanuel Adebayor seeing his headed effort cleared off the line by a stern Stallions defence.
With that in mind, however, chances were few and far between for the most part in what was a very scrappy battle at times.
In total, there were eight yellow cards shown between the two sides showing just how desperate the grudge match got at times, Togo accounting for six of those while Burkina Faso got away with a rather more respectable two.
Neither side could find the edge in normal time, and so it took another 30 minutes of play to see who deserved their place to stay in the AFCON running, a period of time dominated by Paul Put’s Stallions.
Kossi Agassa may feel he could have done more to keep Jonathan Pitroipa’s goal out of his net, but the Rennes midfielder did exactly to wrap his head around a Burkina Faso corner, tipping the effort off the underside of the Togolese crossbar and in.
This makes it just the second time that Burkina Faso have made their way to the semifinals of the tournament. The last time they did so came back in 1998 where Les Etalons managed a fourth place finish.
The win evidently meant a great deal to the Stallions as well as manager, Put, many of them were seen in sheer delirium following the victory.
Emmanuel Adebayor wasn’t quite so pleased.
Regardless of their exit, Togo can be pleased with their last efforts and their tournament as a whole when considering the tragic events that unfolded in 2010 regarding the awful shooting upon the team’s bus.
Just three years on, the nation appear to be recovering in their efforts, something you can be assured will only continue as Adebayor and Co. bounce back from such an odd and discouraging event.
For now, though, all eyes will be on Nigeria and Burkina Faso, the two who will move onto the next round of the Africa Cup of Nations, facing Mali and Ghana later on this week, respectively.