The battle for space in the final thirds will be crucial to determining who wins a final ticket when Nigeria confronts South Africa in Bouake on Wednesday
Wednesday’s 2023 AFCON semi-final clash between South Africa and Nigeria promises to be an intriguing encounter, given the distinct playing styles of both nations. Both teams have showcased strong defensive performances, with four consecutive clean sheets and reliance on goalkeepers based in South Africa.
The key to securing victory will depend on which team can effectively create and exploit the half-spaces in the final third, thus breaking through the resilient defence that characterises both sides.
Themba Zwane and Ademola Lookman are likely to emerge as pivotal figures for their respective teams, although the No. 9s, Victor Osimhen and Evidence Makgopa, will play significant roles in determining the outcome of the match.
The four duels the Eagles must win are:
Themba Zwane vs Frank Onyeka
Zwane possesses the skills necessary to break through the Eagles’ defence, but he will face the formidable capabilities and endurance demonstrated by Onyeka, who plays a crucial role in Nigeria’s defensive structure.
In the 1-0 victory over Angola, Onyeka won six out of seven duels, effectively collaborating with Aina on the right flank to neutralise Angola’s most threatening forwards.
Onyeka’s strength lies in his ability to identify potential danger and swiftly address it, while Zwane will aim to exploit half-spaces to deliver passes to his forward line.
Percy Tau vs Ola Aina
Tau hasn’t displayed his usual exuberance in Cote d’Ivoire, but his experience will undoubtedly be a significant asset for Bafana Bafana. The Al Ahly forward typically seeks to cut inside and generate space in the final third, whether for penetrating runs or creating opportunities with passes.
Aina, who has excelled in handling tricky forwards throughout the tournament, will play a crucial role in containing Tau and preventing him from breaching Nigeria’s defensive line, utilising both his defensive prowess and offensive capabilities.
Mothobi Mvala vs Victor Osimhen
Mvala has demonstrated his uncompromising approach to defensive duties, but he has yet to face a persistent forward like Osimhen. The Sundowns defender, who made nine clearances against Cape Verde, also experienced difficulties in retaining possession, conceding possession 10 times.
This could play into Osimhen’s favour, as the Napoli striker has been relentless in his pressing without the ball. With one goal and one assist in his last five matches, Osimhen will be eager to showcase why he holds the title of African Player of the Year.
Teboho Mokoena vs Ademola Lookman
South Africa’s midfield relies heavily on the intelligence, and composure provided by Mokoena. His role on Wednesday will involve closing down the spaces that Lookman typically exploits to receive the ball and initiate attacks.
Lookman, boasting three goals and an assist, stands out as the most potent Nigerian forward because of his astute awareness of the areas where the Eagles can pose the greatest threat to their opponents.
The match kicks off at 6 p.m. Nigerian time at Stade de la Paix in Bouake.