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Africa awaits final nobody foresaw

Mark Lomas
Nigeria's Emmanuel Emenike scored one of his four tournament goals in the group stage draw with Burkina Faso

The African Nations Cup has once again proved itself the most unpredictable of all international football competitions, with the enthralling 2013 tournament reaching its climax this Sunday as two unlikely finalists do battle for continental supremacy in Johannesburg. Nigeria and Burkina Faso have taught us once again that, where African football is concerned, one must expect the unexpected.

It is not quite the David versus Goliath contest that Zambia and Ivory Coast provided in last year's final, but in Nigeria – two-time winners and Africa's most populous nation, with more than 166 million residents – and first-time finalists Burkina Faso, there is still an obvious favourite and an obvious underdog.

Nearly two decades have passed since the Super Eagles last soared above all other continental challengers, when their 1994 vintage – inspired by talented youngsters like Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh, complemented by the goals and experience of Rashidi Yekini – prevented a fairytale victory for a Zambia team badly scarred by the Gabon air tragedy just months earlier. That disaster was used by Zambia as inspiration for last year's triumph in Libreville and the same period provides motivation for Nigeria this time, too, following the untimely death of Yekini - the country's all-time leading scorer and star of the 1994 tournament - last year at the age of 48.

The Nigeria side Yekini spearheaded was unquestionably one of the finest to ever come out of Africa. As continental champions they entertained at the 1994 World Cup in the United States and were an 88th-minute Roberto Baggio equaliser away from reaching the quarter-finals, while an Olympic gold medal two years later in Atlanta was further proof of their powers.

A third Nations Cup triumph and second in succession should have also arrived in 1996, but a withdrawal in protest against South Africa's hosting of the tournament denied the much-heralded collective the opportunity. Few would have believed then that 17 years could pass without Nigeria winning another continental title. Now, in a twist of fate, it is South Africa that provides the setting for the Super Eagles to end their drought, and it is the captain of that famous side, Stephen Keshi, who is the coach aiming to deliver the elusive third trophy.

While the victory over perennial pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals may be viewed as the stand-out result for Keshi's Nigeria at the 2013 finals, their mauling of Mali in the last four was really the watershed moment. The Super Eagles have finished in third place at the African Nations Cup on seven occasions - more than any other country - and have lost in the semi-finals in their last four appearances. The removal of that albatross was a major breakthrough.

Keshi has his eye on creating history with a victory that would make him the first Nigerian to guide the Super Eagles to African Nations Cup glory - Brazilian Otto Gloria was boss in 1980, Dutchman Clemens Westerhof in 1994 - but his opposite number has a different kind of incentive this Sunday. At the end of a week in which FIFA revealed the extent of the match-fixing disease spreading through football, Burkina Faso coach Paul Put has an opportunity for redemption having previously served a ban for his involvement in a scandal in his native Belgium.

Rebuilding his reputation in Africa after being banished from Belgian football in 2007, Put spent four years with Gambia before taking the Burkina Faso reins last year. Reflecting his own recent history, Put's guiding of the Stallions to the continental final has been a real triumph against adversity. It took a 96th-minute goal to even secure a place at the tournament, with Alain Traore's strike denying Central Africa Republic an away goals victory in qualifying and sending the partisan Ouagadougou faithful into raptures. A late goal was required again from Traore to claim a draw with Nigeria in the opening game of this year's finals, while a red card to goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama in the second match against Ethiopia could not prevent a remarkable 4-0 victory. Then came the injury to leading scorer Traore, who has not played since the final group game, and of course the scandalous refereeing performance in the semi-final against Ghana. Once again, however, it was not enough to thwart the Burkinabes as they beat the Black Stars on penalties.

Put has already taken Burkina Faso a stage further than they have ever been before as a fourth-place finish in 1998 is the only time they had previously made it out of the group stage. Now they could do worse than to look to the example of Zambia, who demonstrated in 2012 just how far superior team spirit can carry a side. The odds certainly seem stacked against Burkina Faso in the final, which will be their first game away from the the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, their spiritual home in recent weeks - but a showdown with familiar opponents in unfamiliar surrounds may just provide the perfect recipe for another helping of African unpredictability.

Nigeria player to watch: Emmanuel Emenike< p> Leading the tournament scoring charts going into the final, Emenike is looking to add to his four-goal tally and join Nigerian legends such as Segun Odegbami, Rashidi Yekini and Jay-Jay Okocha in the pantheon of Golden Boot winners at the African Nations Cup. The Spartak Moscow striker has netted in four of his five games at the finals and his bustling style has been the scourge of defences. The 30-yard free-kick that opened the scoring against Ivory Coast was particularly memorable, and this powerful frontman will again be a dangerous weapon for the Super Eagles.

Burkina Faso player to watch: Charles Kabore. The Marseille midfielder is the captain and beating heart of the Burkina Faso team. Kabore's high work-rate has been vital in getting his side this far, and the box-to-box midfielder has proved a real thoroughbred for the Stallions in South Africa. With Nigeria demonstrating plenty of threat on the counter in recent games, Burkina Faso will be reliant on Kabore's engine more than ever to break up play and provide the link between defence and attack.

Key battle: Victor Moses v Jonathan Pitroipa. Both wingers have played an integral role for their respective teams at this tournament, and have often produced the spark of creativity to inspire their team-mates. Chelsea attacker Moses, who only made his debut for Nigeria last year, didn't start the first game of the finals but has proved indispensable since - no more so than when winning and scoring two late penalties to secure progress in the final group game. His opposing No. 11's presence in the final was only confirmed on Friday when a ban for a harsh red card in the semi-final victory over Ghana was overturned. Pitroipa's availability is a major boost to Burkina Faso, with the Stade Rennes man having created Alain Traore's late group-stage leveller against Nigeria and proving he has more than just pace and nimble feet when heading home the winner in the quarter-final against Togo.

Trivia: Guinea are the only country to have played at more African Nations Cups than Burkina Faso without winning the trophy. This is Burkina Faso's ninth tournament, while Guinea have yet to triumph in ten appearances. However, the Stallions can take heart from the fact that Ivory Coast took ten attempts to win their first crown, while Tunisia claimed glory on their 11th attempt and last year's champions Zambia finally broke their duck at the 15th time of asking.

Stats: Although they missed the 2012 tournament, Nigeria have played the second-highest number of African Nations Cup matches (80) in the competition's history, with only record seven-time winners Egypt having featured in more games (90). Egypt are also the only nation to have scored more goals (154) than the Super Eagles (112).

Odds: Burkina Faso are understandably the outsiders at 4.50 with bet365, while Nigeria can be backed at 2.00 and the draw after 90 minutes at 3.30. Emmanuel Emenike has scored the first goal in three out of five games at the tournament, and is 5.50 to repeat the feat in the final.

Prediction: Burkina Faso will be looking to follow in Zambia's footsteps but Nigeria are ready to put their African Nations Cup underachievement behind them and claim that long-awaited third continental title.

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