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Football | Super Eagles

Nigeria © Backpagepics

Ekpo talks on Keshi's birds

This week one of the shining lights from the 1992 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, Friday Ekpo talks to after his countrymen, Nigeria's Super Eagles, tore to shreds the form book to reach the last four at the expense of pre-tournament favourites, Cote d'Ivoire.

He talks on his former teammate, Stephen Keshi, now head coach of the Nigerian squad and the famous win over Cote d'Ivoire's Elephants as well as on the performance of home boys, Sunday Mba and Godfrey Oboabona and the national team's rebuilding process.

Win against Cote d'Ivoire

Ekpo, 43, believes the win against the Elephants was no fluke and said to "In the game of football you don't write off your opponents until the game is over. The Super Eagles showed their inner strength by digging deep to win in the face of criticism. At times, the quality of your opponents can raise your game and that was what happened.

"I'm happy they are in the semifinals now. So the work doesn't end with defeating the Ivorians."

Semifinal versus Mali

With the Eagles of Mali firmly perched for a semifinal showdown with the Super Eagles, the ex-Shell Sport midfielder has warned Keshi and his men that it will not be a stroll in the park.

"Mali have been the team many people seem not to give attention. They are a unit and crafty too. So it is always going to be a difficult game and our boys now need to shake off the win against Cote d'Ivoire and focus on this game," he said.

Asked if Nigeria will benefit from having played for only 90 minutes compared to the gruelling two hours of football the Malians went through to defeat hosts, South Africa in the quarterfinals, Ekpo dismissed that premiss.

"It counts for nothing. The Malians had an extra day (Sunday) to condition themselves for the semifinal game (on Wednesday) while our team played on the day they took a rest," said Ekpo. "On that basis, it will make no sense to write off Mali."

Sunday Mba & Godfrey Oboabona

The performance of Mba and Oboabona earned them plaudit from Ekpo, who believes the duo's seamless adaptation into the Super Eagles' team will open opportunities to players from the local league.

"This is an opportunity to create a team from the (local) league so that we can always have a pool to draw from," he offered.

"I've always been an advocate of building our national teams from the home front because myself, Keshi and others started here before moving abroad to play club football."

Stephen Keshi

After guiding his team past Cote d'Ivoire's golden generation, Ekpo hopes that Keshi's critics will now sheathe their swords and allow the coach and team focus on their next match.

"I think the pressure will be a lot less now on Keshi and his team. Now they are understanding themselves with every game, which is good," said Ekpo.

"Keshi's plan to pick home-based players in his team is not a surprise to me. He played in the Nigerian league and has decided to bring in players from same league. Unfortunately he couldn't pick more than six because at the time the league was not in progress. He has shown he can manage very well as the team's coach.

"It's been a long time any coach has been brave enough to include players from the league at home in their team. But Keshi has done it and kudos to him. I hope he is given the chance to stay long on the job."

Winning the 2013 Afcon

But the former Mbilinga playmaker was quick to caution Nigerians not to start demanding that the team win the Afcon after defeating Cote d'Ivoire.

He reminded that it is still an open field for all four teams in the semis and that the hungriest side will win the title.

"At this point all the teams in the semifinals have a chance to win the tournament. So we have to be careful with our ambition of winning it after beating Cote d'Ivoire. Yes it was good the team beat Cote d'Ivoire but that doesn't guarantee that they will just walk up and claim the title without a challenge. Like Nigeria, I'm sure Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso want to win it badly too. So we shouldn't press it on Keshi and his team that it is a must that they win (the Afcon). But I believe the players now know they are closer and won't want to lose it," the former Nigerian international rounded off.


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