AFCON 2013: Crucial Battles

AFCON 2013: Crucial Battles

The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations final is set, with Nigeria dominating Mali 4-1 and Burkina Faso pulling out a dramatic victory over Ghana in penalty kicks.

Those clubs that suffered crushing defeats on Wednesday will meet in the third place playoff on Feb. 9, while the finalists will square off this coming Sunday in Johannesburg's FNB Stadium.

The wonders of the Internet will allow world football fans to witness the action in live-stream format, and Naij.com will be doing live reporting, too. Here is a brief preview of what to expect.

AFCON 2013: Crucial Battles

Mali vs. Ghana

The top two teams in Group B meet for the second time, with the Black Stars seeking revenge after the crushing 3-2 loss in PKs in the semifinals.

As for the Eagles, they were simply overwhelmed in the penultimate match of the cup by a Nigeria team that was firing on all cylinders. It will be difficult for Mali to rally, but avenging a 1-0 loss to Ghana in the group stage should be a motivating factor.

Goalkeeper Soumbeila Diakite was considered somewhat of a liability from the outset and that unfortunately showed up. It will be interesting to see how he responds after letting up four goals.

Ex-Barca midfielder and Mali captain Seydou Keita noted that the squad lacked experience and got exposed for it in the semis:

"I don't want to say that I was better than the rest and that the other players let me down," he said. "No, tonight we weren't good collectively, in the same way that against South Africa we were good together. Today we failed as a team, that's all."

Expect a huge match from him in an effort to lift his compatriots.

Ghana has to be thinking what might have been had Michael Essien and Andre Ayew been able to participate in the tournament. The fact that the Black Stars got this far is impressive, but they could have certainly used those two standouts, who are used to severe pressure during the penalty kicks, Wednesday.

This consolation fixture offers little consolation for both of these squads, yet it should be highly entertaining in any case, with plenty of national pride on the line.

Nigeria vs. Burkina Faso

AFCON 2013: Crucial Battles

 

This will be the maiden final for both clubs, and Nigeria should be the favorite despite finishing second to Les Etalions in Group C.

The Super Eagles showed just how explosive they can be in the semifinal romp over Mali. Head coach Stephen Keshi implied after the decisive win that this club is just scratching the surface:

"Most Nigerians didn’t understand, it’s not only skilful players that can do the job for you in a tournament. You want the mentality to be strong, you want team players, people that can really work for the team...

"Beyond that I know there’s a lot of potential for this team but it’s going to take a while to build and for them to understand the style I want them to play."

Keshi acts as if the tournament is merely getting underway. Meanwhile, Nigeria has come into its own in defeating Ivory Coast in the knockout phase and then smashing Mali.

Emmanuel Emenike has been the tone-setter for the Super Eagles' attack. Wakaso Mubarak of Ghana only matches his four goals thus far in the competition, and if Nigeria is to win, Emenike is likely to find the net.

But Burkina Faso cannot be dismissed. This is a resilient, talented team that has seamlessly mixed a slew of veterans and young guns and translated it to a run to the final. Alain Traore leads Les Etalions' offense, which is very balanced and can score multiple times in a hurry.

Both of these clubs have ironically harnessed their talents to reach the brink of an Africa Cup of Nations trophy despite concerns over consistency. That makes this match especially hard to judge.

Whomever plays better between Nigeria's veteran Joseph Yobo and Burkina Faso's young star Bakary Kone in the defensive backfield will go a long way in determining who wins this one.

Due to a slight edge in talent and explosiveness, the safe bet is Nigeria to take home the title.

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