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Thursday, 08 February 2024 07:57

Sebastien Haller fires resurgent hosts into AFCON final against Nigeria.

By Rob Stevens.

Sebastien Haller scored the winner as 2023 Africa Cup of Nations hosts Ivory Coast beat DR Congo 1-0 to set up a final meeting with Nigeria.

The only goal of a cagey contest in Abidjan came in the 65th minute when Haller's volley bounced down into the ground and up over Leopards goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi.

The Borussia Dortmund striker should have opened the scoring just before the break with an unmarked header, while he also missed a chance to double the lead when sending a lob narrowly wide.

DR Congo did not look like getting a late equaliser, although Meschack Elia sent a volley wide of the left-hand upright and Simon Banza then fired well over in injury time.

Ivory Coast had sacked Jean-Louis Gasset as boss before scraping through the group stage, and had needed late goals against both Senegal and Mali to progress to the last four.

But interim boss Emerse Fae now has a chance to guide the Elephants to a third continental title, adding to triumphs in 1992 and 2015, when they face three-time winners Nigeria in Abidjan on Sunday (20:00 GMT).

The Super Eagles had reached the final earlier on Wednesday after beating South Africa 4-2 on penalties following a dramatic 1-1 draw in Bouake.

DR Congo start well after protest

The match was the first time the tournament hosts had returned to the Alassane Ouattara Stadium since suffering a chastening 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea which had left the West Africans on the brink of exiting the finals after just three games.

Fae made four changes to the side which grabbed a 90th-minute equaliser and a 122nd-minute winner against Mali, with captain Serge Aurier, centre-back Odilon Kossounou and forward Christian Kouame all suspended.

Meanwhile, the DR Congo squad staged a protest during the anthems with players and coach Sebastien Desabre covering their mouths and pointing to the side of their heads to call for peace in the eastern part of the country.

The Leopards threatened from first-half corners, with Haller forced into a diving header to clear one at the near post before Elephants keeper Yahia Fofana flapped at the next delivery.

Cedric Bakambu headed in the loose ball and wheeled away in celebration but referee Ibrahim Mutaz had already blown his whistle, ruling that Elia had kicked the ball out of Fofana's hands.

Meanwhile the delivery of Ivorian right-back Wilfried Singo was causing problems at the other end, with Simon Adingra planting a header wide of goal before Haller missed a glorious chance five minutes before half-time when he mis-timed his effort wide from eight yards out.

There was still time before the break for Elephants midfielder Franck Kessie to strike the left-hand post with a fierce strike.

Haller strike puts hosts through

Three minutes after the restart, Theo Bongonda almost put DR Congo ahead but the half-time substitute could only fire into the side-netting after bursting into the area and thrillingly wriggling past two defenders.

Mpasi parried away another powerful shot from Kessi but the Leopards stopper was unfortunate with what proved to be the winner.

Haller dropped back to meet Max-Alain Gradel's cross from the right with a first-time volley from about 13 yards out, and the bounce of the ball caught out Mpasi as it dipped just under his crossbar.

Sending a flicked header from a corner over the bar, the involved Haller was then narrowly off target with his lobbed attempt from outside the box after a poor defensive header gifted him the chance to wrap up the tie.

Two-time champions themselves, but not since 1974, DR Congo had drawn their first four games at the finals but could not find a way back into the match after coming from behind to beat Guinea in the quarter-finals.

Ivory Coast become the first hosts to reach an Afcon final since Egypt in 2006 - with the Pharaohs also the most recent side to lift the trophy on home soil that year.

After a tournament of underdog success and surprise results, Ivory Coast fans can now look forward to a heavyweight clash with Nigeria following a path through the finals which has already involved several dramatic twists and turns.

It could also cap a remarkable journey for Fae, the 40-year-old former Nantes, Reading and Nice midfielder, who could win Africa's most prestigious trophy in just his fourth game in charge of his country.