AFCON 2013 – Mali v Nigeria – Close encounter expected

Mali take on Nigeria at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban in the first of two all West African semi-finals in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, the victor going on to face either Ghana or Burkina Faso in the final.

The Eagles of Mali will be looking for a first final since they were runners-up in 1972, their best performance to date, and will be loath to go out at the same stage as at last year’s tournament. Nigeria’s Super Eagles, twice winners, will be looking to finally add a third title and for their coach, Stephen Keshi there may be a chance of personal revenge, having been sacked by Mali in 2010.

Nigeria, who prior to this tournament had arguably been on a sharp downward curve – they failed to qualify for the 2012 tournament and are ranked 27 places below Mali – have bounced back in style under Keshi and may have surprised some by their progress, especially by putting an end to Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation’s last chance of winning a trophy in the quarter-final.

Keshi has done so with a squad where he excluded several big names, including Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu and Obafemi Martins. Instead, Keshi turned to home based players such as Sunday Mba and brought in European based players who were in form, such as Victor Moses. The more youthful blend has worked well, as Keshi said himself: “Somehow, the Nigeria fans don’t appreciate their players. But I know my team, I know their mentality. I know the boys I picked were right, I have confidence in them.

However, Keshi is aware of the threat of Mali, and their motivation, adding: “I know their players will be thinking about it, and that is where they are getting their power from, their spirit, their force. They are thinking: ‘Let us do this for our country’ and I think that’s where their force is coming from.

The crisis in the country is certainly on the players’ minds. As Eagles and Chievo forward Mamadou Samassa stated: “Of course it is not nice to see what is happening, but we are hoping that we can make the people back home very happy. We know that football can unite people and heal many things.

The Eagles showed their determination coming back from a goal down against the hosts in the quarter-final to go through on penalties. The hero of the hour – saving two penalties – Soumaili Diakite has been dropped for the returning Mamadou Samassa, cousin of the forward.

However, perhaps the key man for Mali is Seydou Keita. If ever a player was symbolic of their country it is Keita. The experience and calmness he brings to the side, allied to skill and determination, is essential, a man who leads by example on and off the pitch. He said: “It will be a tough game but we want to win it. This will be our second straight semi-final and we want to go further. I have not won a trophy with Mali, but we have a chance now and we hope we can do it.

These two sides look evenly matched in ability and determination, so this may be a close encounter.

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