By Jonathan Wilson
Stephen Keshi, as is his way, made the best of it.
The Nigeria coach, known as Big Boss, is admirably unflappable in the face of criticism - which is just as well, because he has faced a lot of it - but he must know that, while finishing second in the group isn't disastrous, facing Ivory Coast rather than Togo in the quarter-final makes an exit far more likely. And if Nigeria go out in the last eight, the chances of Keshi keeping his job are significantly reduced.
To watch the Nigeria media (and to an extent their fans) at work is to see a fascinating internal struggle, one that is familiar to anybody who has covered England in recent years.
On the one hand, there is a recognition that the combination of expectation and criticism hampers the team, raising the pressure and anxiety to inhibit performances. There is even a desire to keep criticism in check. And yet on the other hand it cannot help itself.
The team staggers through the group stage and so all the usual slights come out: not just complaints about Nigeria's less than thrilling football (although with a touch more luck they could easily have won all three games), but rumours about splits in the camp and fury at supposed mixed-zone snubs.
Even Keshi is clearly growing a little weary of the constant attrition. Before the vital final group game against Ethiopia he put out a statement through the Nigerian press officer urging his team "to win our matches before bad calls are made so that those who know next to nothing about football will not become our overnight technical advisers."
Nigeria had led their opening game against Burkina Faso 1-0 when Efe Ambrose was harshly cautioned for the second time. They seemed - uneasily - to have held out when Alain Traore capitalised on a slip from Godfrey Oboabona. They led its second game, against Zambia, 1-0 when a baffling penalty decision handed the defending champions an 85th-minute equaliser. Had both of those games been won, Nigeria would already have been through before facing Ethiopia.
As it was, they were on course to go out by dint of having a worse disciplinary record than Zambia when Victor Moses was chopped down in the box with 10 minutes remaining. He converted the penalty and another one awarded 10 minutes later, but that Traore equaliser in the first game proved costly.
"Taking on Ivory Coast is a different ball game," Keshi said. "It's a different mentality - everything is different because it is not going to be the same as preparing against Ethiopia or the last two teams we played against. They are a very good team but we are not so bad either."
For him, a meeting with the Elephants must bring back happy memories.
It was Ivory Coast that the Nigeria side Keshi captained beat on penalties in the semi-final on their way to the title in Tunisia in 1994, their last success. Since then, Nigeria and Ivory Coast have met twice in the Cup of Nations: in the group stage in 2008, when a Salomon Kalou goal was enough to win the game for the Ivorians, and, far more significantly, in the semi-final in Alexandria in 2006, the last time Nigeria realistically looked as though they could win it.
In that tournament, Kanu had excelled from the bench but Augustin Eguavoen, the coach, bafflingly gave in to pressure and picked him from the start. He was overwhelmed by Yaya Toure and the Ivorians won 1-0 through a Didier Drogba goal.
While the game will certainly be tough for Nigeria, it also represents the first real test for Ivory Coast, who were edgy against Togo and smoothly destructive against Tunisia before coming from two down to draw their dead rubber against Algeria. Their talent is not in doubt but they do have a habit of slipping up to the first side really to put them under pressure.
There's no doubting that Ivory Coast against Nigeria is the most eyecatching tie but the biggest crowd will come in Durban where the hosts, South Africa, who have been as inconsistent as it's possible to be, face a dogged Mali motivated by the desire to bring "priceless joy" - as Seydou Keita put it - to those enduring the conflict at home.
Dour in drawing with Cape Verde, South Africa comfortably beat Angola and then qualified as a mix of panic and inspiration earned a draw against Morocco.
Earlier in the day, Ghana, suddenly looking serious challengers now Asamoah Gyan has rediscovered his form, face the minnows of Cape Verde. Coached by Lucio Antunes, who combines the role with his work as an air-traffic controller, they are the smallest nation ever to qualify, let along reach the quarter-final.
In Nelspruit, meanwhile, Burkina Faso, who would have been the surprise of the tournament had it not been for Cape Verde, meet Togo, themselves in the last eight for the first time. Burkina have qualified eight times out of the last nine but, other than 19998 when they reached the semi-final on home soil, have never been past the group stage.
While forward Jonathan Pitroipa and midfielder Charles Kabore are players of genuine quality, what has set them apart this time has been the finishing of Alain Traore, who scored three goals in the first two games. A thigh injury sustained early in the draw against Zambia, though, looks like ruling him out of the rest of the tournament, and that gives Togo, with Serge Gakpe and Floyd Ayite supporting Emmanuel Adebayor, a real chance.