New Vision (Kampala)

Uganda/Nigeria: Afcon - Nigeria Pins Hopes On Keshi

Durban — Today

Semi-finals

Nigeria v Mali 6pm

WHEN Stephen Keshi took charge of the Nigerian team approximately a year ago, he described his newly adopted sons, who had fared less well in previous major competitions, as 'depressed and defeatist'.

At that time, the Super Eagles were awful and were referred to as the 'Super Chickens'.

They simply couldn't fly, despite parading some of the finest players around European club football.

But 14 months down the road, the Super Chickens are slowly but surely on course of redeeming their faded status if their landmark quarterfinal victory over giants Ivory Coast was anything serious.

All Nigeria have to do is overrun Mali in today's explosive Orange Nations Cup semi-final at the Moses Mabhida Stadium to claim their first final appearance since 2000, when they lost Cameroon on penalties.

Of course, that is not straight forward considering that Mali proved their own credentials after eliminating the hosts in front of a capacity crowd in the quarters last weekend.

But what the Super Eagles are blessed with -that the hosts South Africa lacked -was the precious 'inside knowledge' about the entire Malian team, which according to Keshi could eventually prove the difference.

Keshi worked with the likes of Seydou Keita, Samba Diakite, Modibo Maiga and Momo Sissoko during his tenure as Mali coach between 2008 and 2010, is very much aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Malian team.

"I know what to expect from Mali. I know all their players. They are a good side and they have been together for a long time. But that is my team and I know what I have to do," Keshi told the media here.

If Keshi succeeds in lifting the 2013 Nations Cup title, he will become the second football icon, after Egyptian Mahmoud Al Gohari to win the tournament as a captain and later coach.

And why can't he? Keshi has already brought the best out of his inexperienced side despite a poor start to the tournament.

In the first game against Burkina Faso, Nigeria played out to a 1-1 draw and registered the same result against Zambia. But a win against Ethiopia in their last group match became the turning point of their tournament.

The Super Eagles have struggled to find a consistent striker over the years and while the likes of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Obafemi Martins have tried to shoulder the attacking responsibilities of the team, Emmanuel Emenike looks the man that could propel them to glory.

The Russian-based striker is just one of the few foreign-based players in the Nigerian squad as Keshi opted for local players -a decision he was heavily criticized for.

"I am happy with what they have done," Keshi hinted. "It's good to see the local players doing so well when no one actually thought they could deliver."

Mali star Keita has already pointed that while football cannot entirely change the zero-sum game of armed conflict back in Mali, he and his team have decided to use the tournament as a means of brining some form of positivity to their beleaguered countrymen.

"We want to use football as a tool to restore peace in Mali, and we can only do that by winning all through."

Ghana v Burkina Faso 9:30pm

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