The 2024 Africa Cup of Nations has reached the semifinal stage, with Nigeria taking on South Africa and Ivory Coast facing DR Congo on Wednesday. The winners will meet in Sunday’s final.
Nigeria have emerged as the tournament’s outstanding team. Their stingy defense has yet to concede a single goal under coach Jose Peseiro, while striker Victor Osimhen has been unplayable up front. Osimhen’s pace, power and clinical finishing make him a contender for player of the tournament.
Since drawing 1-1 with Equatorial Guinea in their opening match, Nigeria have recorded four straight wins without conceding a goal.
“If you don’t concede goals you can win every time,” said Peseiro after the quarter-final victory over Angola in Abidjan, when Ademola Lookman scored to seal a 1-0 victory.
South Africa will have their hands full containing the Super Eagles, but have shown impressive defensive solidarity themselves. Goalkeeper Ronwen Williams has been instrumental, while the back four marshalled by Thapelo Morena and Rushine De Reuck has stood firm.
Coach Hugo Broos has added tactical discipline and maturity to a South African side that continues to improve. Having only lost once in regular time at this AFCON, Bafana Bafana will be confident they can frustrate Nigeria. The memory of their heartbreaking 2019 quarterfinal defeat to Nigeria will also spur South Africa on.
“I think Nigeria is a team who are getting better and better with every game,” said Broos.
“It is a little bit special for both teams because we also have to play each other in a few months in the qualifiers for the World Cup, so it can be a test for both of us.”
The first goal could prove crucial on Wednesday. If South Africa score first, Nigeria would be forced to attack more recklessly. But if Osimhen can break through early, the Super Eagles could overwhelm their opponents. The individual battles between Osimhen and De Reuck, and Williams versus Nigeria’s attackers, will be fascinating viewing.
In the second semifinal, the Elephants of Ivory Coast face a resurgent DR Congo. After nearly bowing out in the group stage, Ivory Coast have embarked on an epic run knocking out AFCON giants. First a penalty shootout win over holders Senegal, then a last gasp extra time victory against rivals Mali.
Despite injuries and suspensions, Ivory Coast continue to find a way to win. Sebastien Haller has been the catalyst, grabbing key goals off the bench, aided by the brilliance of midfielder Franck Kessie. But can their depleted squad summon the energy for one final push?
DR Congo boast significant weapons of their own in the form of striker Cedric Bakambu and winger Dieumerci Mbokani. With classy playmaker Chancel Mbemba pulling the strings, DR Congo have emerged as legitimate title challengers.
Their only loss came against table-toppers Morocco in the groups. Since then, DR Congo have raised their game, outlasting Mohamed Salah’s Egypt and hammering Guinea. Coach Hector Cuper has expertly blended youth and experience in this Congolese side packed with AfCON know-how.
Ivory Coast will be buoyed by vociferous home support, but they simply have to perform better defensively than they did against Mali. The likely absence of key defender Odilon Kossounou due to suspension is a major concern.
“After Equatorial Guinea we were at the bottom of a hole. We had to wait and hope that we would qualify, which happened, and now we are not afraid of anything,” said midfielder Seko Fofana.
With DR Congo’s firepower, they will punish any mistakes. Bakambu and Mbokani can turn half chances into goals and their link up play is hard to contain. But this Ivory Coast side have developed a stubborn resilience that could frustrate their opponents.
After exceeding expectations already, both South Africa and DR Congo have the chance to etch their names in AFCON folklore with one more win. But Nigeria and Ivory Coast remain favored to setup a blockbuster final between African heavyweights.
Osimhen looks unstoppable and has the Super Eagles soaring. While Ivory Coast continue to summon enough magic and grit to progress. Come Sunday, the champions of Africa will likely be either a supreme Nigeria or an indefatigable Ivory Coast.