Super Eagles aren’t invincible
I felt the first semifinal between Mali and Nigeria started out as a very well-balanced encounter. For me, Mali looked quite cohesive in the opening 20 minutes. They missed two crucial chances from set-pieces early on, which I believe would have changed the entire complexion of the game.
In spite of the 4-1 score line, I don’t agree Mali were completely outplayed. That said, Nigeria were far more clinical in front of goal and made the most of the chances they created. The Super Eagles really got in behind the Malian defence and by halftime, to be fair, the game was already over as a contest.
Mali showed some spirit to hit back with a goal in the second half but it was the concession of the third goal from the free kick that really killed them off. I can’t believe that players at this level can turn their backs and stick out a boot when in the wall. It’s absolutely criminal. Rather let the ball go and let the goalkeeper make the save!
Victor Moses was influential against Mali and has had an impressive tournament thus far. The Super Eagles’ game now seems to revolve around the Chelsea forward. He has real pace and is a fine passer of the ball. Striker Emmanuel Emenike also caught my eye. He has great presence of mind in the box.
The Nigerians are now one game away from winning their first Afcon title since 1994. I credit much of the turnaround to one man – Stephen Keshi.
The ‘big boss’ had real presence as a player and has transferred that to his coaching career. He is humble, level-headed and is a real father figure to the players. He must also be given full credit for not being afraid to blood a number of lesser-known, locally-based players. I felt this was long overdue and sent out a firm statement that no one’s place in the Super Eagles’ side is guaranteed.
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Turning to the second semifinal, which pitted Ghana against Burkina Faso, I must say I have been very impressed with the latter. Their success in South Africa has been founded on a steely resolve, a never-say-die attitude and the fact that their players work hard for each other.
While Nigeria head into the final as overwhelming favourites, I feel the Burkinabe have nothing to lose and should really take the game to their more fancied opponents. In a knockout game, pedigree and ratings go out the window, so my message to them would be to not show the Super Eagles any respect.
However, I believe that Burkina Faso’s best shot at winning the title hinges largely on whether key midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa’s red card is rescinded. I felt that was a diabolical refereeing decision, along with the soft penalty, which Ghana were awarded.
German-based striker Aristide Bance is another key player for the Burkinabe. He may have missed a hatful of chances but did score a goal and showed he possesses bounce-back ability. He is a real bustling presence, is quick, robust and has nice movement, so Nigeria will have to keep a close eye on him.
Burkina Faso is certainly not an easy side to play against. They are compact and are at times quite electrifying. Also bear in mind that, as underdogs, the Stallions can once again expect enthusiastic support from the neutrals.
My advice to Burkina Faso would be to keep compact and maintain their shape defensively. The longer they keep Nigeria scoreless, the more they will frustrate them. If the game remains goalless late in the match, Nigeria will go in search of goals, which may allow the Stallions to pounce on the counter-attack.
In the Group C game between the sides, which ended 1-1, Nigeria got the ball in behind the Burkinabe quite often, so the Stallions will have to be defensively aware at all times.
Finals are determined by key moments: big tackles, a great strike or some individual brilliance. In a cup final style of play tends to go out the window.
While I’m predicting a closely-fought encounter, I feel there will be a few goals in the game. Nigeria are certainly the more experienced side, heading into their seventh Afcon final as opposed to Burkina Faso’s first.
However, I believe the Super Eagles are by no means invincible. While they are certainly developing into a good side, as yet no comparison can be drawn between the current crop and the champions of 1994.
In truth, the third-place play-off on Saturday is never a game any side wants to be involved in. It really is a case of kissing your sister. Ghana will most probably give many of their young players a run. The only positive from this type of game is that it gives the coaches an opportunity to experiment with new players. I’m backing the Malians to claim the bronze medals.
I hope Sunday’s final is open and enterprising and that there are a few goals for the fans to cheer.
Unlike in 1996, I think the current players are fortunate in that there is not a week’s build-up to the final. Mentally it’s an advantage as the quicker the game comes around the better.