As the Super Eagles take to the pitch against the Stallions of Burkina Faso Sunday, aside from a third Nations Cup glory at stake for Nigeria, Stephen Keshi will be hoping to be the first Nigerian to win the trophy both as a player and a coach. KUNLE ADEWALE writes
The Super Eagles of Nigeria will on Sunday at the National Stadium in Soweto confront the Stallions of Burkina Faso in the final of the 29th Africa Cup of Nations as Coach Stephen Keshi leads out his team in search of a third Nations Cup glory for the country, having earlier won it on home ground in 1980 and in Tunisia in 1994.
Prior to this period, the closest Nigeria have come to winning the trophy was a silver medal at the 2000 edition of the competition co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana and third place positions in Mali and Tunisia in 2002 and 2006, respectively.
Just before the tournament very few Nigerians gave the Super Eagles a chance in the competition, considering the shoddy preparations and the lack of seasoned talents in the team. But Keshi has never hidden his belief in the team and the eggheads of the Nigeria Football Federation took a lot of pressure from the former Hawks of Togo coach by insisting that the 'Big Boss' was never given any ultimatum ahead of the Nations Cup.
After a sloppy performance in the group matches where the team qualified second behind Sunday's finalists, Eagles, against all odds and defeated hot favourite, Cote d'Ivoire, in the quarterfinal. So, it was no surprise when they dismissed the Malian opposition, a team Nigeria have never lost to in a Nations Cup encounter.
In a telephone chat with THISDAY after Super Eagles final berth, the team's assistant coach Silvanus Okpala said he had always insisted that Nigerians should be patient with the team, adding "but we thank God that those that did not believe in us have started singing a new tune," he said.
On the chances of Nigeria defeating Burkina Faso in the final on Sunday, the 1980 Nations Cup gold medallist said: "The atmosphere in camp is very perfect to take on any opposition. The team is very compact and their target is the trophy, without underrating their opponent."
Continuing, he said: "The mood in the team's camp now reminds me of when we won the trophy for the first time in 1980. When you start having that kind of atmosphere the winning mentality is always very strong and with God on our side the Super Eagles will deliver the trophy to President Goodluck Jonathan in Aso Rock."
In his reaction, Okey Isima, who was Okpala's teammate in 1980 praised the coaching crew for a job well done on the team considering the little time they have in putting the team together, but cautioned that the Super Eagles must not be complacent when they take on their opponent on Sunday.
"The experience the team lack was complimented with the hard work and experience of the coaches. When you have Keshi and Okpala putting heads together, supported by Daniel Amokachi and the rest coaching crew you can always expect the best," he said.
Isima however warned that the technical crew has to be cautious against the Burkinabes. "The team has to come up with a good game plan to counter the speed of the Burkinabes because they can run at you all day. The players have to be very alert and focused."
Nigeria has been inspired by the attacking abilities of Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses, as well as intelligent midfield play provided by John Obi Mikel. This has helped the team nick three successive wins against Ethiopia Cote d'Ivoire and Mali to reach this stage.
It is Eagles' first appearance in an AFCON final since the year 2000 when they succumbed on home soil to Cameroun and it also gives them a chance to reclaim the continental title for the first time since 1994.
Aside from the superb play of Emenike, Moses and Mikel, Nigeria has also been able to call upon youngster Ahmed Musa, who made a big impact against Mali when he came off the bench in the semi-final by scoring his team's fourth goal.
"I am happy with the goal and the victory was massive for us. We deserved it," said the player who urged Nigerians to keep praying and believing for the final on Sunday. "My target and that of the team has been to win the trophy. Now that we are in the final, it is the trophy Nigerians should expect from us. They should continue to pray for us," he said.
Meanwhile, Mali's coach Paul Put will be concerned at his team having played two successive 120-minute matches within the last week, as well as the suspension to key player, Jonathan Pitroipa, who was unjustly sent off in the semifinal against Ghana by referee Slim Jdidi.
"It was a tough game, but we deserved to win even though the decisions of the referee did not match the commitment shown by the 22 players on the pitch," said Burkinabe's coach.
He added: "I am happy with the win, but I am more happy for the players and the people of Burkina Faso."
Meanwhile, Nigeria's captain Joseph Yobo has said he hopes to sign off on his last Nations Cup with the trophy at the expense of giant killers, Burkina Faso. The 32-year-old has announced this will be his last competition, while he plans to quit international duty after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"I thank God for my life today. I have put a lot into the national team and it has been long Nigeria have been to this stage at the competition. This is my sixth AFCON and this is my first time in the final. I am looking forward to lifting the trophy on Sunday. But the work is now," Yobo said.
Speaking on the fact he has mostly been on the bench, Yobo said he has no hard feelings as what matters is for the team to triumph. But he added he is ever ready when called upon. "I started the game but got injured. I am fit now, but it's left for the coach to decide if I play or not. The last time out, I played and even scored but we didn't make it. Now we are here, what matters most is for the team to be winning, which we are doing," he said.
The Fenerbahce defender applauded the youngsters in the team, noting that their performance has been remarkable.
"We the experienced ones are guiding them not to lose focus while celebrating. The final is the most important game for us. We have worked hard and need not lose focus now," he said.
Meanwhile, Mali will take on Ghana in the third place match slated for the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth to re-enact last year's losers' final match. The Malians were outplayed in their 4-1 semifinal loss to Nigeria in Durban on Wednesday, while Ghana have been less than convincing in this tournament and they finally cracked when they were eliminated by Burkina Faso later in the day after the first semi-final.
The venue for this third and fourth place finish match will be familiar to these two teams. It is the city they both used as base for their group matches. Ghana will be playing their fifth match of the tournament at this venue and they are unbeaten in all.
Mali have played two group matches in Port Elizabeth, winning their first against minnows, Niger, and losing to this weekend's opponents Ghana.
The Malians looked to have run out of steam in their tournament as they seem to have played their best matches.
As for Ghana, they managed to pull through matches by grinding out results. They relied on comebacks against the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. Mali also remains the only side in the tournament so far to suffer a defeat in open play, which was the 1-0 loss to Ghana.
At Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012 both sides were, just like this year, placed in the same group. Ghana won the Group match 2-0, but the Eagles got their revenge in the Bronze Medal match, winning by the same scoreline.