6 February 2013

Nigeria/Mali: Afcon 2013 - Nigeria Battles Mali for Final Ticket

At the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban Wednesday afternoon, the Super Eagles will be aiming for an outright victory against Mali in the first semi-final match of the 29th edition of the Africa Cup of Nation in South Africa.

Ghana and Burkina Faso are the other teams to light up the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit for the other ticket for Sunday's final game at the Soccer City in Soweto.

After overcoming the hurdle posed by the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire in the quarterfinal match last Sunday in Rustenburg with a 2-1 victory, the senior Nigerian team suddenly assumed the tag of favourites and football fans are not expecting anything short of the final ticket.

But a resilient Malian side that stopped host, South Africa, from progressing may not come cheap as most Nigerians are expecting this afternoon.

Wednesday's game in Durban is Mali's second successive semi-final appearance. Last year at 2012 AFCON jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Mali lost 0-1 to Cote to d'Ivoire. The Eagles of Mali finished overall third at the tournament after beating Ghana in the third/fourth play-offs.

Mahamadou Samassa, one of the key players in the Malian side remains unfazed taking on the Super Eagles who defeated the same Ivoriens that stopped them from playing in the final of the last edition.

"We have been playing well as a unit and this has worked for us. I don't think we will change much for the semi-finals here in Durban. Maybe we can correct one or two things in our game but I'm happy with what we have been doing.

"We are in the semi-finals, the next step is the final and once you are there, anything can happen. It doesn't really matter who we will play - we can't focus on other teams. The next step for us is the final. We want to give our best in this tournament. We cannot celebrate the victory against South Africa forever, our next focus is how to stop Nigeria from getting to the final," Samassa warned Tuesday.

Interestingly, while many people are wondering why the Malians are not distracted by the trouble back home, Samassa insisted: "We are footballers and not politicians. We don't want to talk about what is happening back home (the war in Mali). Of course it is not nice to see what is happening, but I don't want to talk about it. For us, we are hoping that we can make the people back home very happy. We know that football can unite people and heal many things.

"We believe that we can do the country proud and give our people the reason to rejoice and be happy."

It is perhaps this quest to help reunite their people that today's encounter in Durban may be a 'do or die' battle for the glory-seeking Malians who have been further inspired by the quality display of former Barcelona star, Seydou Keita.

The Malians have lost only once in the competition - against Ghana during the group stages in Port Elizabeth. Besides that, they have been impressive and clinical.

But Super Eagles Head Coach, Stephen Keshi, who missed been fired at the end of the group phase and consolidated his position with the victory over the Ivoiriens knows what is at stake. He's not likely going to toy with the chance to write his name in gold as the only Nigerian to have won the trophy as both player and coach.

From his last training match, Nigerians are not likely going to see much difference in the team that stopped the Elephants. Right now, opinions are divided among the coaching crew whether to allow Onazi Ogenyi who held forth brilliantly for suspended Fegor Ogude against Cote d'Ivoire to start or go back to the bench for the Norway-based Warri player to be on the starting line-up.

With Vincent Enyeama in between the goal posts, the others in the back-line up may not be different from Godfrey Oboabona, Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile. In the middle, John Mikel Obi, Sunday Mba, Kenneth Omeruo and Brown Ideye may still be Keshi's preferred starting option, while Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses complete the possible first-11 to take on the dangerous Malians.

This encounter is the fourth AFCON finals match between Nigeria and Mali.

Three previous encounters (two of them won by Nigeria and the other drawn) have produced only four goals.

Yakubu Aiyegbeni scored the only goal in Mopti to hand Nigeria the bronze medals at the expense of the host nation at the 2002 finals and Austin Jay-Jay Okocha's thunderous free-kick from 35 yards made it 2-1 in another bronze medal match in Monastir at the 2004 finals in Tunisia. It was a scoreless draw when both teams met in the group phase in Sekondi at the 2008 finals in Ghana.

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