A unique fact of the semi-finals is that it is the first time the last four teams will be from West Africa. Another fact is that when the Super Eagles of Nigeria face the Eagles of Mali in the first semi-final match of Wednesday, it will be their seventh clash at the AFCON since 1978.
While Nigeria have won three times, the Malians have never tasted victory over their rivals as the other three matches ended goalless in Abidjan, Ivory Coast (1983), Bamako, Mali (2002) and Sekondi, Ghana (2008).
So much have changed since both teams last met five years ago. Mali have grown to be the fifth best team in Africa, while Nigeria are ranked ninth. But all that may change at the end of today’s game.
Mali, who have never won the title before, need it to unite a warring nation back at home. But Nigeria, two-time winners, are desperate to be champions again.
After knocking out pre-tournament favourites, Ivory Coast, in the quarter-finals, Nigeria by default assumed the title, especially after showing improvement in each game at the tournament.
Like Nigeria, the Malians did not reach the semi-finals on a platter of gold. Winning just one game and losing another at the group stage was not an impressive record, but their display as they eliminate hosts South Africa via penalty shoot-out proved they could be spoilers to any ambitious team at the competition.
They have proven to have a powerful midfield and in Mamadou Samassa, coach Patrice Carteron claims to have the best goalkeeper in the competition.
Samassa is likely to return from suspension to replace Soumbeyla Diakite, who was the hero of Saturday’s penalty shootout win over South Africa in the quarter-final.
Chievo Verona’s forward, Mahamadou Samassa, has been vital in the attack, and with the inspiration of former Barcelona star, Seydou Kéita, and the support of QPR’s Samba Diakité he is looking to be more dominant in the Mali attack.
Nigeria are not without their able men who rose to the occasion against a star-studded Ivory Coast side on Sunday. Not only is coach Stephen Keshi expected to adopted his now function 4-3-3 formation, the players to execute the game plan are eager to resume from where they stopped against the Ivorians.
The return of Fegor Ogude has boosted Keshi’s option in the midfield where Ogenyi Onazi and Mikel Obi held sway in the absence of the Valerenga player. Onazi did well in keeping Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba busy on Sunday but no one can deny Ogude’s quality and versatility.
Nigeria’s potent force, however, lies in the attack where Brown Ideye, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses have gradually formed an effective three-pronged attack.
Despite having more big name players than the Malians, the Super Eagles weakness lies in a counterattack from a calculative opposing side.