By KUNLE SOLAJA, Durban
For the seventh time, Nigeria has qualified for the final of the African Cup of Nations. The Super Eagles did it in grand style, not just beating the hard-fighting Eagles of Mali, 4-1, but ensuring that they spelt the name of the West African nation with goals.
What was initially expected to be a tough encounter ended up a one- sided match as the Super Eagles did not waste time in asserting that they were far more superior than the Eagles of Mali The last time the Super Eagles got to the final was 13 years ago, but sadly lost to Cameroon, the team that Nigeria lost three final matches to in 1984, 1988 and 2000. Certainly, now, their FIFA ranking is bound to soar next week Thursday when another one will be released.
What a resurgence of the Super Eagles who started the tournament as upstarts and barely survived the opening round suddenly have a transformation. What a build-up! Taking off as locomotive and eventually blasting away as a supersonic jet. Playing with unusual confidence that may even border on arrogance the pre-tournament unrated Nigerian side is now the top seed to win the cup on Sunday From defence to the midfield and then the attack, they were masterly with their crisp passing and dribbling, superb ball control. They contested every ball and made the game a no-contest.
It was a compact defence, fluid midfield and a potent attacking line. They have eventually shown that they are actually super. And so, Stephen Keshi is on his way into the history books. He will join the late Egyptian football legend, Mahmoud El-Gohary, to win the African Nations Cup as player and later as a coach. The Egyptian, who died last September in Jordan after suffering brain stroke achieved his feat in 1959 as a player and in 1998 as a coach. Keshi was the captain of the 1994 victorious Super Eagles and is already leading the team again as coach to another possible victory on Sunday.
By half-time, the Super Eagles had taken an absolute command of the game, taking a three goal lead. It was a bold statement from the Super Eagles. If they had been mocked and underrated before this tournament and, if their victory over Cote d’Ivoire was still being seen as a fling with success, in Durban they were declaring their intentions to engage in a formal courtship with success under Stephen Keshi. But the Malians also deserved some commendations.
No one thought they could even get this far. Their purpose was bigger, but Nigeria was a better team yesterday. In the first quarter of an hour, Nigeria had the dominance, but the Malians had had more shots on targets and also two corner kicks, while Nigeria had none. Just over 10 minutes into the first half, Mali declared her intentions when Captain Seydou Keita’s header sailed narrowly wide from the left upright from a corner.
A minute later, Mohamed Sissoko unleashed a powerful shot from far, but it flew over the crossbar. The back-to-back Mali opportunities seemed to have left the Super Eagles shaken a bit The first real chance for Nigeria came on the dot of 15 minute, but the strikers were clumsy and only got a corner kick that was wasted. Then, the turning point as what initially looked like an even game eventually turned one-sided. Consequently, the Super Eagles began to be more assertive going forward. Soon, they had a moment of their own when striker Emmanuel Emenike found himself unmarked inside the box. Emenike picked his spot, but Mali’s keeper, Mamadou Samassa, produced a brilliant save.
Half-way through the first half, Nigeria’s persistence paid off when Chelsea’s forward, Victor Moses, telegraphed a beautiful cross inside the Mali box that was connected by Elderson Echiejile with a diving header to put the Super Eagles ahead. Echiejile might have received the kudus, but credit should go to Moses who had engineered the move and set it up for Echiejile. Four minutes later, the Super Eagles replicated a similar move and the results were the same. Emmanuel Emenike played a perfect ball inside the Mali box and Brown Ideye punished the Malian defence.
In both goals, Mali was guilty of ball watching. Throughout this campaign, their DNA had been a disciplined defence. However, Nigeria must have worked out that they can profit from attacking Mali’s left side. At the stroke of half-time, Nigeria impounded the misery on Mali when they scored their third goal thanks to a deflection from an Emenike free-kick. Fortune, it is often said, favours the brave. Two minutes into the second half, Keita should have pulled one back for Mali, but he rushed his shot and missed target.
When Mali were picking momentum, Nigeria’s substitute Ahmed Musa put the final nail in their Mali’s coffin when he scored Nigeria’s fourth goal. On the 75thminute, Mali scored their only goal after substitutes, Tidiane Diabate and Mady Diarra combined well with the latter taking a shot to the far left corner that beat Nigeria keeper, Victor Enyeama.