Durban - It’s not all fun and games for Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi as he prepares the battle plan for Wednesday night’s Africa Cup of Nations semifinal clash between his side and Mali at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Fashionably late for Tuesday’s media briefing ahead of the clash between the west African rivals, Keshi strode in coolly and exchanged smiles, handshakes and pleasantries with the Malian media contingent. If anyone was flustered by the delay then Keshi’s jokes and jovial banter would have set them at ease.
Nigeria are nicknamed the Super Eagles, as opposed to Mali’s nickname of Eagles, but Keshi played down any suggestion that they were in any way superior. In fact he regarded them very highly, for many in the Mali squad were coached by him a few years ago. “I don’t know about being favourites; we’re playing a very good side. I know 85 percent of them and it’s not going to be easy. The way we approached Burkina Faso, Zambia, Ethiopia and Ivory Coast will be the same way against Mali. We respect every team and don’t take them for granted,” said Keshi.
His captain, defender Joseph Yobo, echoed those sentiments when he played down whatever the record books say about Nigeria’s greater pedigree and achievements. “Looking at the history books doesn’t count. Every nation wants to get to the final, so there’s no favourites at this stage. It comes down to whoever is highly motivated and wants to get to the final. We’ll have to do what we did in the last game and show big motivation to get to the final.”
Yobo, who missed the quarterfinal win over the Elephants because of injury, is fit again and is likely to return to the side along with midfielder Fegor Ogude who completed his suspension. Their trump card, however, is forward Emmanuel Emenike. He is the tournament’s joint top scorer with three goals, and having kick-started his professional career in South Africa, this is home ground advantage for him.
Keshi obliged the Malians by answering their questions in French. When asked to repeat his answers in English he quipped that he would have to be paid for his translation service. Whether the jokes were meant to mask the seriousness of tonight’s challenge or not, Keshi was forthright about the impact that the separatist fighting in Mali could have on their players. “It’s a shame whatever is going on in Mali. I was there for two years and it’s a great country. Their football players are thinking of that and that’s where they’re getting their power from. They’re thinking, ‘Let us do this for our country, and that’s their power’,” said Keshi.
Mali’s key man is likely to be midfielder Seydou Keita. He was shackled in the first half of the quarterfinal against South Africa but captain Keita led the fight-back with the equalising goal. The centre of the field will see stiff battles between Mali’s Keita and Momo Sissoko, and Nigerian counterparts John Obi Mikel and Fegor Ogude.
Apart from the clashes between the experienced stars from glamorous leagues, there are also the rising stars of Nigeria to watch out for. Two of their home-based professionals, striker Sunday Mba and defender Godfrey Oboabona, stood out in the quarterfinal victory over Ivory Coast. Oboabona, who started in place of injured captain Yobo, had a solid outing in shutting out Didier Drogba, and Mba scored the winner that brought the Super Eagles to the semis for the thirteenth time. In addition to that strike being Mba’s first international goal, the pair’s overall performances boosts their confidence and gives Keshi more selection options.
This is Mali’s fifth semifinal appearance, out of eight trips to the finals, whereas Nigeria will attempt to break a trophy drought of almost two decades since they last wore the crown in 1994. Whoever wins tonight, the final presents an opportunity to win a first African title for either captain, Yobo or Keita. Reaching Sunday’s show-down will also offer a chance for Keshi, who captained Nigeria’s 1994 victorious outfit, to become the second person to win the title as a player and as a coach.
Results: Burkina Faso 1-1, Zambia 1-1, Ethiopia 2-0 (Gp C), Ivory Coast 2-1 (quarterfinals)
Scorers: Emmanuel Emenike (3), Victor Moses (2), Sunday Mba
Coach: Stephen Keshi
Captain: Joseph Yobo
Key player: Striker Emmanuel Emenike has scored in three of four outings
Rankings: CAF 9, FIFA 52
Nickname: Super Eagles
Previous appearances: 16 (1963: first rd, 1976, 1978: third, 1980: champions, 1982: first rd, 1984, 1988, 1990: runners-up, 1992: third, 1994: champions, 2000: runners-up, 2002, 2004, 2006:
third, 2008: quarterfinals, 2010: third)
Match record: P84 W44 D21 L19 F118 A81
Record win: South Africa 4-0
Record losses: Algeria 1-5, Sudan 0-4
Goalkeepers: 23 Chigozie Agbim (Enugu Rangers), 16 Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be'er Sheba/Isr), 1 Vincent Enyeama (Maccabi Tel Aviv/Isr)
Defenders: 5 Efe Ambrose (Celtic/Sco), 3 Elderson Echiejile (Braga/Por), 6 Azubuike Egwuekwe (Warri Wolves), 22 Kenneth Omeruo (ADO Den Haag/Ned), 14 Godfrey Oboabona (Sunshine Stars), 21 Juwon Oshaniwa (Ashdod/Isr), 2 Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce/Tur)
Midfielders: 10 John Obi Mikel, 11 Victor Moses (both Chelsea/Eng), 12 Ruben Gabriel (Kano Pillars), 20 Nosa Igiebor (Real Betis/Esp), 4. Obiora Nwankwo (Calcio Padova/Ita), 13 Fegor Ogude (Valerenga/Nor), 17 Ogenyi Onazi (Lazio/Ita)
Strikers: 19 Sunday Mba, 18 Ejike Uzoenyi (both Enugu), 9 Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow/Rus), 8 Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kyiv/Ukr), 7 Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow/Rus), 15. Ikechukwu Uche (Villarreal/Esp)
Results: Niger 1-0, Ghana 0-1, DR Congo 1-1 (Gp B), South Africa 1-1 (quarterfinals)
Scorers: Seydou Keita (2), Mahama-dou Samassa
Coach: Patrice Carteron (Fra)
Captain: Seydou Keita
Key player: Keita is a classy midfield operator with a powerful left foot
Rankings: CAF 3, Fifa 25
Previous appearances: 7 (1972: runners-up, 1994, 2002, 2004
fourth, 2008, 2010: first round, 2012: third)
Match record: P38 W14 D11 L13 F47 A51
Record wins: Kenya 3-1, Burkina Faso 3-1
Record losses: Zambia 0-4, Morocco 0-4
Goalkeepers: 16 Soumbeyla Dia-kite (Stade Malien), 1 Mamadou Samassa (Guingamp/Fra), 22 Aly Yirango (Djoliba)
Defenders: 4 Adama Coulibaly (Auxerre/Fra), 5 Idrissa Coulibaly (Al Lekihwiya/Qat), 23 Ousmane Coulibaly (Brest/Fra), 19 Salif Coulibaly (Djoliba), 2 Fousseiny Diawara (Ajaccio/Fra), 21 Mahamadou Ndiaye (Vitoria Guimaraes/Por), 3 Adama Tamboura (Randers/Den), 13 Molla Wague (Caen/Fra)
Midfielders: 20 Samba Diakite (QPR/Eng), 12 Seydou Keita (Dalian Aerbin/Chn), 6 Momo Sissoko (PSG/Fra), 18 Samba Sow (Lens/Fra), 8 Kalilou Traore (Sochaux/Fra), 17 Maha-mane Traore (Nice?Fra), 14 Sambou Yatabare (Bastia?Fra)
Strikers: 9 Cheick Tidiane Diabate (Bordeaux/Fra), 7 Cheick Fantamady Diarra (Rennes), 11 Sigamary Diarra (Ajaccio/Fra), 10 Modibo Maiga (West Ham/Eng), 15 Mahamadou Samassa (Chievo Verona/Ita) – Sapa-AFP