After vanquishing the favourites and the hosts respectively, Nigeria and Mali will both be quietly confident about progression to the African Cup of Nations final. At the same time, however, both will be acutely aware of the talent and threats that lie within the opposition’s ranks.
In this piece, Bleacher Report’s African Expert Ed Dove profiles some of the key figures in Wednesday’s semifinal. Any of these five could be the difference between success and failure, between heading home and advancing one step closer to a glory that could scarcely have been imagined before the competition.
Before the tournament began, I named Victor Moses among three key youngsters who could emerge as a bona fide international star during the unfolding of this competition. While Younes Belhanda headed home anonymously, and Christian Atsu is yet to make the sustained impact he is capable of, Moses has been creating headlines everywhere from Lagos to London.
Against Ethiopia in Naija’s final group game, he was the catalyst, the difference between progression and elimination. Not once, but twice, his direct running and terrifying pace forced errors within the previously solid Ethiopia defence.
In the quarterfinal, he was once again impressive, demonstrating that his myriad of talents can be effective against a higher calibre of defenders. Few other Nigerians have as much potential as Moses to lead the Super Eagles into the promised land.
Looking across the field of competitors for the AFCON, it was hard to identify a team more focused around one individual than Mali—Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo side being the one exception. Having watched all of Mali’s tournament games so far, it often appears as though the central midfielder is singlehandedly carrying the nation’s burden upon his shoulders.
Despite not operating in the forward line, Keita has scored 50 percent of Mali’s tournament goals to date, as well as sturdily protecting his defence and driving his team forward, carrying the ball through multiple phases of play.
The years under Pep Guardiola, in the midst of Barcelona’s riches, have clearly paid off, and now is the time for Keita to bring his considerable talent and experience to bear against Nigeria.
Players with profiles as augmented as Mikel’s are sure to split opinion, and yet, it appears that the Chelsea man is beginning to turn the corner with the Nigeria faithful.
Criticised in the past for not giving his all for the national side, the midfielder’s influence was evident in the qualifier against Liberia, when he delivered a midfield masterclass to ensure Nigeria’s place in South Africa.
He hasn’t yet been overwhelmingly brilliant at the AFCON; I have noted a tendency to opt for the flashy, Hollywood option, rather than helping the team by keeping the play ticking over in midfield, recycling the ball and gently crafting openings.
With inexperienced midfielders like Ogenyi Onazi alongside him, I would have preferred a more measured approach, although the assist for Emmanuel Emenike’s goal against Zambia did go some way to abolishing memories of his penalty miss moments earlier.
His most notable contribution, however, was against the Ivory Coast in that crucial quarterfinal when he made a world-class interception late on to deny Lacina Traore a point-blank shooting opportunity.
I argued after the match that this was Mikel’s greatest contribution to date for the national side, although I, and many others, hope that greater things are to come as the tournament comes to a close.
Sub-standard goalkeeping has been an unhappy feature of this year’s Cup of Nations, and few nations have escaped without criticism. Whilst Ethiopia’s incompetent efforts will take some beating, the ill-discipline of first-choice keeper Mamadou Samassa had ruled him out of their quarterfinal with South Africa and threatened to derail Mali’s tournament.
Step up, Soumbeila Diakite.
Having made a name for himself in last year’s AFCON, when his heroics in a shootout helped eliminate hosts Gabon, Diakite repeated the trick, saving twice as Mali ended the dreams of a second host nation in yet another shootout.
Having identified Samassa as the tournament’s best goalkeeper, Eagles coach Patrice Carteron may opt to reinstate the former French youth international for Wednesday’s semi—but if the tie comes down to a penalty shootout, Diakite may well be called upon to perform another miracle.
Currently the tournament’s joint-top scorer, the sky seems to be the limit right now for the Spartak Moscow frontman.
Nigeria wouldn’t be where they are now without Emmanuel Emenike’s impressive displays thus far in the tournament.
He opened the scoring against Burkina Faso after linking up well with partner Ideye Brown. Then, against Zambia in the Group Stage’s highest-profile match, he gratefully accepted a delicious through-ball from John Obi Mikel, lashing the ball past Kennedy Mweene in the Chipolopolo net.
Against the Ivory Coast, he once again made a major contribution. After missing a chance from eight yards, lesser strikers would have crumbled and perhaps shied away from the action—but not Emenike. Sensing an opportunity, he received an inviting lay-off from a John Obi Mikel free kick, and proceeded to blast the ball into the net, giving the Super Eagles a valuable first-half lead.
The youngster will be sure to test Mali’s defence, and his goals may well make all the difference once again for Stephen Keshi’s collective.