The New Times (Kigali)

6 February 2013

Nigeria/Mali: Nigeria Must Respect Mali to Avoid Upset

They may have caused an upset by eliminating pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals but Nigeria need to give their semi-final opponents Mali the respect they deserve in order to avoid falling victims of an upset themselves.

Mali, led by their inspirational captain Seydou Keita, started slowly but have improved as the tournament progresses to the big money-spinning stages, and after their last result against hosts South Africa, they'll be in buoyant mood against the Super Eagles, who come into today's encounter as favourites.

The problem for Mali has been scoring goals, having netted just three so far but defensively they look soild, unlike Nigeria, who have players that can score at any time like we saw them do against Ivory Coast. Super Eagles' Emmanuel Emenike is the tournament's joint top scorer with three goals along with Ghana's Mubarak Wakaso and Burkina Faso's Alain Traore, who unfortunately can't add to his tally because of an injury, which forced him to return to his club in France for further treatment.

Seydou Keita is Mali's top scorer with two goals, but with a team full of Europe-based players and so much experience within their ranks, Nigeria will have to be at their near-best if they are to come through this fixture unscathed.

Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi knows the Mali team well enough to know exactly what to expect having coached them at the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola but left soon afterwards.

Nigeria's superiority, at least on paper, and Keshi's knowledge of the ins and outs of Mali football, should give the 1994 champions of Africa the edge but that may not count to much when the referee blows the first whistle. The war-torn Mali has had three coaches since Keshi left, which, in a way, suggests that a lot of water has gone under the bridge in that time.

Therefore, Keshi, who captained Nigeria to the 1994 title, and his players, need to respect that fact, and also the reality that their opponents will have an extra-motivation of wanting to put a smile on the faces of their countrymen and women back at home.

Mali, who finished third at the last edition in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea where, like this year, defeated the hosts (Gabon) on penalties, and you can't bet against them going one better this time round.

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