Super Eagles fly high

Posted by Firdose Moonda

If Stephen Keshi stuck to his word, he would have gone into the Malian dressing room after his Nigerian team beat them 4-1 in the semi-finals of the African Nations Cup and asked them how "they and their families are." If he didn't, and spent the time celebrating with his team - which will be playing in the final of the tournament -- no one would mind.

- Nigeria return to African Cup final

Keshi coached Mali from 2008 to 2010 and took them to an ANC. His inside knowledge seems to have paid off. Before the match, the "Big Boss" hid any emotion toward his former charges and in entirely classy fashion took a soft approach to the crunch clash.

"I know 85 percent of their team very well, and after the game I will be asking them how they and their families are," Keshi said. "Until then, much as I love Mali the country, and it is a great football country, I will be a professional."

He has reason to believe his strategies will be praised even more now. In the two and a half weeks the tournament has gone on for, Nigeria have improved with every match. They went from a team that looked as youthful as many of them actually are to ones that have matured into a unit that works together. Their confidence and intent has grown -- so has Keshi's stature.

In the prematch build up, he seemed to know it and spoke freely about his views on African countries using foreign coaches -- like Mali has done. "[I'm] not against white coaches in Africa, but I'm against African teams employing mediocre coaches from Europe, 'carpenter' coaches, while we have quality African former players who can do the same thing," Keshi said.

Reading between the lines, it may be an attack on Patrice Carteron or it may just be Keshi saying what Keshi thinks, but few will disagree with him too loudly now. It's a complete contrast to the chorus of voices who doubted Keshi before the event began. With selection a major issue, Keshi was under pressure, and the expectation was that he would fail.

Having won the tournament with the Nigerian side of 1994, Keshi knows what it takes to win. It seems he has been able to teach his team that too. An average age of 23.5 and a mixture of foreign and locally-based players are not usually seen as a recipe for success, but Keshi has turned it into that.

Nigeria will say there is a reason they are called Super Eagles as opposed to just Eagles like Mali, and tonight their dominance over their West African counterparts was obvious. Even though Mali controlled the first quarter of an hour, Nigeria recorded the first chance when Brown Ideye forced Mamadou Samassa into a save, and John Obi Mikel's shot seven minutes later just cleared the crossbar.

A goal looked likely, and it was started by Victor Moses and finished by Elderson Echiejile. Moses evaded Mali on the left wing to create the opportunity for a second goal in the space of five minutes.

Moses' legend may only grow from here. As an 11-year-old, his parents were killed in religious riots in the Kaduna province of Nigeria. He was playing street football at the time and was promptly hidden and sent to foster care in south London. Moses could have been lost to his homeland. He played for England at age-group level up to under-21 but accepted a call-up to Nigeria in March 2011. If he continues in this vein, he will have many years to play for Nigeria.

Before halftime, the match was already decided. A third goal, from an Emmanuel Emenike free kick that took a deflection off Momo Sissoko, put Nigeria at a massive advantage. With no choice but to attack in the second half, Mali's defence was absent when Ahmed Musa beat the offside trap and had no one but the keeper to beat on his way to recording the Nigerians' fourth goal.

Mali pulled one back, but it will do nothing to comfort them. If they are honest with themselves, they will admit that they never looked like a team that was going to win this competition. After a relatively simple win over Niger, they lacked energy in their loss to Ghana and had to come back from a goal down to draw with both the DRC and South Africa, who they eventually beat on penalties.

It will be heartbreak for their captain, Seydou Keita, who like Didier Drogba is thought to be appearing in his last ANC. Keita offered to pay the team's bonuses themselves because the war in their homeland means funds would be better spent on other things. They may still get some amount and still have a third-place playoff to contest, but for the second tournament in succession, they bow out at the semi-final stage.

In the second semi-final, Burkina Faso pulled off the upset eliminating Ghana.

The Stallions qualified for a first ANC final in their history after a 3-2 win on penalties over the Black Stars. They will face Nigeria in a climax to the event nobody would have predicted while Ghana and Mali will contest the third place playoff. For Paul Put's men, their adopted home ground in Nelspruit did the trick.

- Video: Highlights: Burkina Faso 1(3)-1(2) Ghana

When Ghana won a penalty inside 13 minutes and Mubarak Wakaso converted, it seemed the match would play to script. But Aristide Bance had other ideas. He equalised on the hour mark to put matters level and take the match t extra time.

In that period, Burkina Faso could have scored on many occasions with Bance leading the charge. Instead, all the Stallions had to show was a sending off. Jonathan Pitriopa was sent off for simulation after a second yellow with three minutes left to go. He will miss the final but for now Burkina Faso may not mind.

Ghana missed two penalties in the shootout while Bance scored Burkina's last. The Black Stars were extinguished in dramatic fashion and will likely have to make their last appearance without John Pantsil. He was stretchered off in their eighth minute with what looked like a hamstring injury.

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