The favourites were upset as Nigeria and Burkina Faso progressed to the final of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in South Africa on Wednesday night. Nigeria were superb in a 4-1 win over Mali, while Burkina Faso saw off Ghana 3-2 on penalties, with one kick in hand, after the teams had ended extra time level at 1-1.
For the Nigerians, it was a case of the Super Eagles being better than the Eagles as they advanced to their first Afcon final since 2000. For the Burkinabe, the victory ensured their best ever result in the continental finals. Their previous best of fourth place in 1998 was achieved on home soil in 1998.
Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium hosted the early semi-final between Mali, the highest ranked team remaining in the tournament and Nigeria, who had defeated the top ranked team in Africa, Côte d'Ivoire, in the previous round. A tight contest was predicted, but it failed to materialise as the Super Eagles netted three times in the last 20 minutes of the first half to take a 3-0 lead into the break. It was too much for the Malians to overcome.
'Nigerians have waited a long time for this'
"Nigerians have waited a long time for this moment," coach Stephen Keshi said after the match. "Nigerians have missed out a great deal in the last few years. My goal was to put a smile on the faces of Nigerians.
"We knew that Mali would give us a tough time, but we knew that they are a little bit slow and we took advantage of that."
Mali's coach Patrice Carteron tried to put a positive spin on a bad result. "We are proud of the fact that we have been able to play well. I'm proud of my team, even though we did not go to the final. We have to remain positive.
'We lost against a good team'
"We lost against a good team that was full of confidence tonight. We played a team that just beat Côte d'Ivoire and you could see their confidence on the night. What happened to us tonight is very difficult. Mali has been able to reach the semi- finals before and we also achieved that, which is good."
Eagles' skipper Seydou Keita, one of the tournament's most outstanding players, admitted Nigeria outplayed Mali, but was disappointed in his side's performance. "We were very happy against South Africa because we played as a team," he said. "Tonight we didn't play well and we must all share responsibility."
Mali applied some early pressure from corners, but they were almost caught out when Emmanuel Emenike got behind the defence on the right after a beautiful pass from John Obi Mikel. The striker then forced an excellent right-footed save out of Mamadou Samassa, who was at full stretch as he blocked the shot.
Mikel came close from range with a powerful volley in the 22nd minute, but only minutes later the Super Eagles hit the front.
Victor Moses did great work on the right, working his way free of the attention of Adama Tamboura with a great turn, which caught the Malian defenders in the middle ball watching. Elderson Echiéjilé, however, was ready when Moses knocked in a teasing cross across the top of the six-yard box. He met the ball on the bounce with a diving header, which left Samassa with no chance and Nigeria one goal to the good.
Moses was the instigator just five minutes later when Nigeria doubled their lead. He sent Emenike clear with a lovely through ball, which the striker ran onto before crossing to the feet of Brown Ideye, who bundled the ball into the net.
A minute from the break, Mali's misery was compounded when Emenike found the back of the net from a free kick at the top of the box. It was clear that it wasn't going to be Mali's night; Emenike's shot was to Samassa's right, but it took a big deflection before finding the bottom left-hand corner. On the sidelines, the Nigerians celebrated wildly. Their spot in the Afcon final was all but sealed.
On the hour-mark, the Malians were again exposed down their left flank when Ahmed Musa was sent clear with only the keeper to beat. He fired between Samassa's legs to extend the Green Machine's lead to 4-0.
The Eagles were not going down without a fight and they managed to pull one back in the 75th minute through Cheick Diarra after good approach play from Cheick Diabaté. There was no coming back from 4-0 down, however, and Nigeria cruised into the Afcon final.
The second semi-final took place at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit where Burkina Faso had played all their matches so far, beating Ethiopia and Togo and drawing with Zambia and Nigeria. They made good use of their previous experience at the ground to take the game to Ghana and created the contest's better chances. When the penalty shootout went their way, they were deserved winners.
'I believe in my players'
Stallions' coach Paul Put was a very happy man after the match and said: "We are looking forward to doing well in our first ever final because l believe in my players, and l have seen so much commitment from them on the field."
Asamoah Gyan, Ghana's captain, commented: "It was unfortunate to lose on penalties. We came here to win and go to the final, but what happened tonight ended up like a lottery with penalties and we were unlucky with ours. We have lost, but we will get over it and move on."
Burkina Faso started strongly, but Ghana were first on the scoreboard when referee Slim Jedidi inexplicably awarded a penalty against the Stallions. It was a hard to fathom decision that outraged the Burkinabe, but Wakaso eventually took the spot kick and beat Daouda Diakité, low to the keeper's left.
A diving save
Gyan got in behind the Stallions' defence in the 25th minute, but was unable to beat Diakité, who kept his team in the match with a diving save to his left. Solomon Asante also had a decent chance to score, but his shot ballooned over the crossbar from inside the box.
Burkina Faso pressed hard from the start of the second half and Fatawu Dauda barely kept a header from Aristide Bancé out. Ghana were under the whip, but they almost caught out the Burkinabe on the counter-attack; Gyan's shot from close range hit the keeper's left-hand post and rebounded into play.
On the hour, Bancé levelled for Burkina Faso. After receiving the ball on the edge of the Black stars' box, in plenty of space, he finished with aplomb to Dauda's right to make it 1-1.
Christian Atsu drew a good save out of Diakité with a well-struck left-footed shot, but the match headed into extra time.
On the attack, the Stallions' Préjuce Nakoulma battled hard to get a foot to the ball in the Ghanaian box. Goalie Duada came out to challenge, but Nakoulma jabbed it past him and into the net. The referee, with another controversial decision, ruled the striker's foot had been too high and it was thus dangerous play.
Bancé almost netted his second with a blast from close range that beat the keeper, but Harrison Afful somehow not only blocked the shot on the line, but deflected it over the crossbar for a corner.
Five minutes from the end, the outstanding Jonathan Pitroipa went down in the Ghana box. It looked like a clear-cut penalty, but referee Jedidi instead showed Pitroipa a yellow card for diving, which was the player's second of the game, and he was dismissed.
And so the match moved to the penalty spot. With the first kick, Ghana's Isaac Vorsah made a horrible mess of his shot, firing shockingly wide of Diakité's right hand post. Henri Traoré then beat Dauda to immediately put Burkina Faso on the front foot.
Paul Koulibaly, though, failed to beat Duada in the third round of kicks and the scores were level. Emmanuel Clottey handed the advantage back to the Burkinabe with a poor miss and Diakité sealed Ghana's fate when he saved superbly to his left from Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu.