Hosts Ivory Coast are through to the Africa Cup of Nations final after a 1-0 victory over Democratic Republic of Congo in Wednesday’s suspenseful Semi-Final, setting up a final showdown with Nigeria on Sunday back at the same venue.
Sebastien Haller was the hero at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium, scoring the only goal in the 65th minute to send the frenzied home crowd into raptures. His volley bounced down into the ground and looped over Leopards goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi.
Haller sent the Ebimpe Stadium into raptures as the team travelled from the brink of group stage elimination to the doors to continue a remarkable turnaround.
They looked down and out after some disastrous group stage results, including an embarrassing 4-0 thrashing by Equatorial Guinea which caused the sack of Jean-Louis Gasset, for Emerse Fae to be appointed on the interim.
But the Elephants scraped through as one of the best third-placed teams, finding form when it mattered most. They first stunned reigning champions Senegal on penalties, before a last gasp extra-time winner against Mali with 10 men.
This Semi-Final win makes Ivory Coast the first hosts to reach the Cup of Nations final since Egypt in 2006. They are now dreaming of a third continental crown after previous successes in 1992 and 2015.
For DR Congo, it was agonizing heartbreak. They were hoping to reach the final for the first time since winning the tournament in 1974 as Zaire. Their players have been using international attention at this tournament to highlight conflict and violence plaguing the east of their country.
In fact, DR Congo thought they had taken an early lead when Cedric Bakambu knocked in a 9th minute corner. But the referee disallowed it for a foul after consulting VAR, foreshadowing the misfortune that would follow.
Ivory Coast grew into the game late in the first half, with Haller heading wide and Franck Kessie crashing an effort off the post. The breakthrough finally came on 65 minutes – Max Gradel dug out a cross from the right wing and Haller swung hopefully through a forest of bodies. His connection was imperfect, but the ball looped perfectly over Mpasi into the far corner.
The Borussia Dortmund striker, starting his first game after injury, wildly celebrated his piece of AFCON history. Ivory Coast then pushed to extend their lead as Haller twice went close to grabbing a second.
But one goal proved enough for Ivory Coast to clinch a historic result, setting up an AFCON final against opponents Nigeria they have already beaten once. Now Haller and his resilient Elephants side will hope to end years of turmoil by lifting the trophy on home soil Sunday night.