RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- Nigeria defeated tournament favourite Ivory Coast 2-1 to reach the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations on Sunday, handing Didier Drogba and his teammates another disappointing elimination at the continental competition.
Sunday Mba scored the winner with a shot from outside the area in the 78th minute, helping Nigeria advance to the last four for the sixth time in eight tournaments.
"Before we came in this afternoon nobody gave us a chance," Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said. "But my boys showed character."
Emmanuel Emenike opened the scoring for Nigeria with a long-range shot that was misplayed by Ivory Coast goalkeeper Boubacar Barry in the 43rd minute, and Cheik Tiote equalized in the 50th with a header from a free kick cross taken by Drogba, who might have had his last chance to win a trophy with his national team.
Nigeria will now play Mali, which eliminated host South Africa on penalties on Saturday in Durban. Burkina Faso and Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo will play the last quarterfinal later Sunday in Nelspruit, with the winner facing Ghana.
The last time Nigeria made it to the final was in 2000, when it lost to Cameroon. The Super Eagles are trying to win their first title since 1994, when they had a team that dominated African football for most of the decade. Nigeria's first title was in 1980.
Ivory Coast was hoping to rebound from a disappointing loss to Zambia in last year's final, when it also was heavily favoured to win the title but left empty handed. The Elephants haven't been able to win the African Cup since 1992 and this talented but aging generation of players appears to be running out of time to finally break through.
The match in Rustenburg was one of the most anticipated of the quarterfinals, with some of the tournament's top names facing each other. Ivory Coast had Drogba, Arsenal's Gervinho and Manchester City's Yaya Toure, while Nigeria was led by Chelsea duo Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel.
Nigeria had most of the chances in the first half but Ivory Coast improved in the second and threatened more often, especially with Drogba and Arsenal forward Gervinho up front.
But it was Mba who came up big near the end. He made a run through the Ivory Coast defence and cleared a couple of markers before getting near the area to fire a right-footed shot that deflected on a defender and went over Barry.
"They got their first goal during a counter and when we were trying to score again they got lucky at the end," Gervinho said through a translator.
Emenike put Nigeria on the board after a free kick from about 30 metres (yards) away. Mikel just rolled the ball and the Spartak Moscow striker fired a powerful shot through the wall, fooling Barry as he tried to punch the ball away in the middle of the goal. The shot didn't appear to deflect off anybody before getting past just to the side of Barry.
Ivory Coast pressed forward after the goal and Tiote equalized with a header from near the far post following a well-placed free kick by Drogba, who earned the set piece when he was fouled just outside the area near the sideline.
Drogba had the last chance of the match with a header that sailed over the crossbar in stoppage time.
It was another disappointing African Cup for the 34-year-old striker. He was benched after Ivory Coast's opener following a lacklustre performance and didn't really meet expectations after returning to the team despite scoring a goal in the 2-2 draw against Algeria in the last group match.
The Nigerians didn't qualify for last year's African Cup but brought a revamped squad to South Africa under the command of Keshi, the team captain in 1994. It struggled in the group stage, tough, and barely advanced to the second round thanks to two late penalty kick goals converted by Moses in the final group match against Ethiopia.
Despite the high expectations entering the tournament, Ivory Coast also didn't impress in the group stage. They beat Togo with a last-minute winner after a lacklustre performance in the opener, then improved to defeat Tunisia 3-0 and struggled again against already eliminated Algeria, needing two late goals to earn the 2-2 draw in the final Group D match.
"We all came here to win the tournament but unfortunately we couldn't do it," Ivory Coat coach Sabri Lamouchi said. "It's a big disappointment for all the players and for me as well."