Can African heavyweights survive semi-finals?
Image caption: Ivory Coast kept their Nations Cup hopes alive with a last-minute equaliser against Mali in the quarter-finals, a match the tournament hosts won deep in extra time
After drama aplenty in the quarter-finals of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, including a 122nd-minute winner and a goalkeeper saving four penalties in a shoot-out, Wednesday’s semi-finals in Ivory Coast have much to live up to.
Three-time champions Nigeria face a South Africa side aiming to win their second title – but a first away from home following their 1996 triumph in Johannesburg – in the first last-four tie (17:00 GMT).
Hosts Ivory Coast have never won the title on home soil – triumphing in Senegal in 1992 and Equatorial Guinea in 2015 – but must overcome unbeaten DR Congo (20:00 GMT) if they are to reach Sunday’s final in Abidjan.
“It’s been a top-level Nations Cup – now let’s hope the semi-finals and final finish it off in style,” Tom Saintfiet, who led The Gambia in the group stage, told BBC Sport Africa.
The BBC World Service will provide radio commentary of both semi-finals in Africa.
Elephants keen to march on
Ivory Coast have certainly been on a rollercoaster since kicking off the tournament.
After the deep lows of the group stage, when the Elephants squeezed into the knockout rounds as a best third-placed side, can the hosts maintain the extraordinary highs of their knock-out matches since?
According to midfielder Franck Kessie “a ghost cannot be afraid”, and the near-dead Ivorians have shown unbelievable spirit when scoring late equalisers against Senegal and Mali in the last 16 and quarter-finals respectively.
All three Ivorian goals in the knock-outs have come from substitutes.
“We won’t be this lucky all the time, but it’s important to know that those on the bench can also contribute,” said interim coach Emerse Fae, ahead of the Elephants’ return to the Alassane Ouattara Stadium for the first time since their 4-0 mauling by Equatorial Guinea in their final group game.
“During the last games, the motivation from the fans has helped – we hope they will stay with us.”
Fae will be without suspended quartet Odilon Kossounou and Oumar Diakite, both sent off against Mali – the former after a torrid display, the latter for removing his shirt after his dramatic 122nd-minute winner and captain Serge Aurier and Christian Kouame, who picked up second yellows last time out.
Image caption: Brentford forward Yoane Wissa helped DR Congo come from behind to beat Guinea 3-1 in the quarter-finals
As two-time champions DR Congo contest their second Nations Cup semi-final this century and a first since losing to the Ivorians in 2015, the Leopards hope to wear black armbands for those recently affected by conflict in the nation.
On the pitch, a clear issue is the concession of penalties in both knockout games so far, against Egypt and Guinea, but the Central Africans can point to their own dead-ball prowess after a hat-trick of set-piece goals against Guinea – netting from a corner, penalty and free-kick.
Remarkably, DR Congo had made it all the way to the quarter-finals after drawing their first four games at the tournament, overcoming Egypt 8-7 on penalties in the last 16.
“Our first victory came at the right time because we’re gaining momentum,” said coach Sebastien Desabre, who has moulded this latest generation of Congolese into a compact unit.
“We may have only won once but remember we have not lost yet.”
Brentford forward Yoane Wissa is the leading scorer for the Leopards in Ivory Coast with two goals, while former Newcastle United defender Chancel Mbemba and ex-West Ham left-back Arthur Masuaku have also found the back of the net.
Can Super Eagles keep soaring?
Image caption: Ademola Lookman, with three goals and one assist, has been a key man alongside Moses Simon, who created the Atalanta forward’s winner against Angola
Nigeria face South Africa in Bouake in a repeat of the 2000 Nations Cup semi-final, with the Super Eagles beating Bafana Bafana as the countries met for the first time at the tournament.
The West Africans have the upper hand in meetings at Afcon, winning all three encounters – with the most recent of those a quarter-final tie in 2019.
Playing in a record-extending 15th Afcon semi-final, Nigeria have impressed both in attack and in defence, where they have won their past four games without conceding a goal – their best run at a Nations Cup.
With Frank Onyeka winning over his critics to provide a solid platform in central midfield, the likes of Ademola Lookman and Moses Simon have been liberated – with the latter creating the only goal of the quarter-final against Angola for the former, who has scored half of Nigeria’s six goals.
“We’ve got a lot of faith in our defensive structure and in the final third we’re frightening,” defender Semi Ajayi told BBC Sport Africa.
Coach Jose Peseiro has repeatedly said a clean sheet will guarantee a win for his side given their prowess up front, where reigning African Footballer of the Year Victor Osimhen has impressed with his non-stop running and pressing despite only scoring once.
Former Nigeria international Sunday Oliseh has praised Osimhen’s ‘leadership and hunger’, with the latter a keyword for a team that – unlike some previous Super Eagles sides – looks fully focused.
Will Broos mastermind upset for Bafana Bafana?
While many expected Nigeria to go far, few thought the same about South Africa who have benefitted from the guile of Hugo Broos, who led Cameroon to their unexpected 2017 triumph.
The oldest coach at the tournament, the 71-year-old has relied on the core of South African club Mamelodi Sundowns to take Bafana Bafana into the last four for the first time in 24 years.
Eight players from the Pretoria-based club that won last year’s inaugural African Football League, while also reaching the African Champions League semi-finals, started their quarter-final against Cape Verde.
Image caption: Ronwen Williams’ penalty heroics against Cape Verde came after he had made a superb save during second-half added time of normal time
“He has taken Sundowns players because he understands those players have experience against different opponents from across the continent – and he realised the synergy and teamwork are important,” former South Africa captain Aaron Mokoena told the BBC.
Broos said their performance against Cape Verde was their worst at the finals so far and, although Bafana Bafana have also achieved four straight clean sheets, he was indebted to captain Ronwen Williams for a crucial last save before keeping out four penalties in the shootout.
In midfield Teboho Mokoena, another Sundowns man, has provided dynamism while Nigeria will need to be wary of experienced forward Themba Zwane who scored twice in the group-stage win against Namibia.
With Broos having fielded an unchanged since the second game, a major concern will be fatigue, with former South Africa midfielder Dean Furman pointing out the “heavy legs” against Cape Verde on Saturday.