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Durban – Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi warned that his team was still far from greatness, though the potential was there after they reached their first Africa Cup of Nations final in 13 years on Wednesday.
A stunning first-half display helped the Super Eagles demolish Mali 4-1 in their semifinal at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
Elderson Echiejile, Brown Ideye, and Emmanuel Emenike were all on target as the two-time former champions led 3-0 at the interval, before Ahmed Musa scored on the hour mark to stretch the advantage to 4-0.
Mali, huge underdogs for the clash, eventually replied through Cheick Fantamady with 15 minutes left, but it proved a meagre consolation as they were outdone by a rival team full of energy and pace.
Keshi was a player the last time Nigeria won the trophy back in 1994, captaining a team that included future stars like Daniel Amokachi, Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, and Finidi George.
“It took us five years to build that squad, this one is just five weeks old,” he said when asked to compare the two generations.
“I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves; as I said, we’re still building. Don’t think we’re there yet.
“That was a wonderful squad, the spirit in that team was unbelievable, we’re friends, we were brothers. Until I can get that same atmosphere from this team, we can’t really compare,” said Keshi.
The Nigeria boss, bidding to become only the second man to win the continental showpiece as a player and coach after Egyptian Mahmoud El-Gohary, was also pleased that his plan to leave out several senior players from the current side had gone well.
The Super Eagles arrived at the 2013 competition with 17 finals debutants as Keshi omitted the likes of Taye Taiwo, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni.
“There were lots of problems back home when I left out some of the senior players in the team, but I had my own reasons, which are known to me only,” he said.
“I know that some people did not understand, but I knew exactly the type of players we wanted, the mentality, the players who can work for the team.
“There is a lot of talent and potential in this team, but it’s going to take a while to get them up to where I want to. So far it’s gone well.”
Nigeria’s road to the final began with a 1-1 draw against Burkina Faso, who they will coincidentally play in the final, followed by the same scoreline against defending champions Zambia.
Their campaign then picked up with a 2-0 win over Ethiopia, followed by the first major upset of the tournament when they stunned favourites Ivory Coast 2-1.
“When I started with this team, it was a little bit difficult because we were just coming together for the first time,” Keshi said.
“Most of the players, I had for a limited time prior to the preparation, two or three days here and there, which was not enough because there’s not much they could do.
“But when I had them before this tournament, they worked very hard in the build-up period. I knew coming to the tournament that the first two or three games might be difficult, because of fatigue and playing in a tournament situation.
“You can never tell what’s going to happen, but I knew we could get it right and everything has fallen into place.”
The Nigerians, who will be playing in their seventh final, will now meet rank outsiders, the Burkinabe, in the Johannesburg final on Sunday.
The Stallions will be playing their first final after causing the biggest upset of the tournament when they defied the odds to oust Ghana on penalties in the second semifinal. – Sapa