Like a Hollywood script, Nigeria triumphed over Herve Renard’s Zambia as the Super Eagles beat the Chipolopolo 5-4 on penalties in Lubango on Tuesday night.
Nigeria’s goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama stood between the Zambians and a semi-final berth throughout the game and continued his heroics during penalties when he scored the winning goal after stopping a shot from midfielder Thomas Nyirenda.
It was his calm in front of goal that ensured that Nigeria continue their hunt for a third AFCON title in Angola.
The match had so much at stake for both teams as it brought back memories of the final in 1994 where Nigeria edged Zambia 2-1 to end the inspirational run of the team led by Kalusha Bwalya.
If the Zambians had hoped for a revenge it was not to be their night as the new generation of players again failed to beat their illustrious opponents even after dominating most of the attack with some confident play.
They edged the Super Eagles on both shots at goal, corner kicks won and possession but their inexperience in front of goal robbed them of victory. They were eventually undone by penalty kicks after playing 120 minutes of heart thumping football.
The game had begun with both teams testing each other’s mettle by playing the ball around in the midfield but could not break down each other’s defence early.
Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene was eventually called into action as he palmed out Mikel Obi’s shot from just outside the box but there was no Nigerian to pounce on the rebound in the early minutes of the first half.
The Zambians then tested the Nigerian defence later but the ball was headed wide by skipper Christopher Katongo. The Nigerian defence fell asleep for a second as the Zambians piled on the pressure not afraid to test their highly rated-opponents.
The Zambians had come into the game the less fancied side but they were quick to show that they were worthy of a semi-final place.
As the first half neared an end, Chinedu Obasi had an opportunity to run at the Zambian defence but was brought down for a free kick which Osaze Odemwingie hit against the wall.
The Zambians returned to the second half looking very dangerous but could not convert their opportunities into goals. The Super Eagles tried to slow down the pace of the game but could not keep hold of the ball for long periods losing to the Zambians who were quicker and more agile on the night.
The Copper Bullets were looking the more effective side going forward in the second period and Enyeama was continuously tested throughout the night from long range.But poor marksmanship robbed them from taking the lead.
Their increasing pressure on the Nigerian defence resulted in a corner kick which was nodded by Himonde towards goal but cleared by Yusuf Mohamed to save the blushes of the Super Eagles.
Minutes later the Nigerians survived another scare from a free kick as Yusuf once again cleared a volley from Jacob Mulenga.
Wolfsburg striker Obafemi Martins came on for Yakubu Ayegbeni in an attempt to put more pace in the Nigerian attack with little effect.
The Zambians were not afraid to make the tackles and Christopher Katongo soon entered the referee’s book, the fourth Zambian on the night to get a caution, for a late tackle on Mikel.
Nigeria were lucky to not concede a penalty late on as the Zambians pressed for the tie breaker as the match entered into its dying minutes.
Mulenga missed an opportunity to kill the game but could not get on to the end of Felix Katongo’s through ball from the left flank to push the match into extra-time.
The extra period began with substitute Obinna Nsofor (on for Obasi) setting up Martins for an opportunity at goal but his shot just went over the crossbar to announce the Nigerians’ intent.
The Zambians tried to resuscitate their attack by bringing on Noah Chivuta for Felix Katongo as they began to fall behind play as fatigue wore on. He effectively entered into the game winning a corner for the Zambians which they could not convert for goal.
Nigeria were reduced to ten men in the 107th minute when defender Apam Onyekachi got his second yellow for a harsh tackle. Soon after, Enyeama denied the Zambians an opportunity to move ahead saving a twenty-metre shot from midfielder William Njobvu.
The Nigerians tried their luck too as a cheeky flick from Mikel set up Martins for goal but the striker hit it high from an acrobatic lift to keep the misery of the night going for both teams who looked tired and winded as they headed into penalties.
Goalkeeper Enyeama turned out the hero for the Nigerians as he saved Thomas Nyirenda’s spot kick after both teams had scored their previous three kicks.
He put his own kick past his opposite number Mweene in a battle of the goaltenders, after Mweene had scored his seconds earlier, to set up a fantastic semi final clash with Ghana.
At the end, heartbroken Frenchman Renard, who had lit up the tournament with his smooth Hollywood looks, walked down the long path into the dressing room leaving his charges, spent and deflated, on the field as the victorious Nigerians celebrated into the night.