Nigeria withstood a number of adversities before narrowly losing to host nation Morocco after penalty shoot-out, in a supercharged 12th Women Africa Cup of Nations semi final match in Rabat on Monday.
A total of 45,562 spectators turned the Complexe Prince Moulay Abdellah into a boiling cauldron, and only their experience, guts, grit and determination kept the nine-time African champions firmly in the game as their every move was booed while the Lionesses were roared on the moment they had the ball.
The Lionesses, who last played at the Women AFCON 22 years ago, before the current finals that they are hosting, started like a house on fire and pegged the Falcons to the rear in the early minutes.
But gangling Ifeoma Onumonu should have given Nigeria the lead in the 13th minute when she was brilliantly set up by Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene.
Three minutes later, Okobi again showed good anticipation to truncate the Moroccan surge, and set up Onumonu, but the forward again failed to make hay.
In the 34th minute, Okobi deftly intercepted again at the edge of the box, but her effort screamed away from goal.
Admittedly, the Lionesses were comfortable on the ball with excellent control and crisp passes, with captain Ghizlane Chebbak, Sanaa Mssoudy and the precocious Fatima Tagnaout threatening the Nigeria goal now and again as they weaved swiftly about the pitch.
Three minutes into the second half, Mauritian referee Maria Rivet stopped play for a VAR check, only to return and hand a red card to midfielder Halimat Ayinde.
The decision shocked the Super Falcons, who had been been challenged by lasers focused on their eyes by spectators, but they refused to cave in to onslaught after onslaught by Mssoudy, Tagnaout, Yasmin Mrabet and Rosella Ayane.
In the 52nd minute, captain Onome Ebi saved on the line with goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie stranded, and it was the turn of Ashleigh Plumptre to do same two minutes later as Ebi crashed into Nnadozie in yet another invasion by the Lionesses.
In the 55th minute, Rasheedat Ajibade’s pull-out was plucked by goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi, but seven minutes later, Nigeria were ahead after Ajibade twisted, turned and crossed for Ifeaoma Onumonu to powerfully head against the upright. The melee saw Yasmin Mrabet flick the ball into her own net.
Morocco were level only four minutes after, when Nnadozie failed to deal with a cross by the ubiquitous Tagnaout and Mssoudy gratefully slammed into the net.
In the 71st minute, Rivet again stopped play for a VAR check, and this time handed Rasheedat Ajibade a red card, reducing the Falcons to nine women.
Nnadozie made a dozen saves towards the end and in the ensuing extra time, with the Lionesses all over the place, but Nigeria could have won it when Gift Monday beat the hosts’ defence on the counter and crashed a well-measured shot against the crossbar, only for the ball to roll out.
In the penalty shootout, forward Ifeoma Onumonu missed for Nigeria as Rita Chikwelu, Regina Otu, Ashleigh Plumptre and Gift Monday scored. Morocco scored all their kicks, through Yasmin Mrabet, Ghizlane Chebbak, Zineb Redouane, Nesryne El Chad and Rosella Ayane.
Morocco will take on South Africa (1-0 winners over Zambia in the first semi final) in Saturday’s final in Rabat, while the Super Falcons tango with the Copper Queens of Zambia for the bronze medals in Casablanca on Friday.