Mali have no shortage of inspiration to draw on ahead of Wednesday's AFCON semifinal against Nigeria.
For the first time in the competition’s history, the final four sides at the Africa Cup of Nations are all West African. And so, as the 2013 installment of the continent’s most prestigious tournament enters its penultimate phase, we have a pair of regional derbies to be played in Nelspruit and Durban.
Ghana, who have played all four of their matches in Port Elizabeth, will finally uproot and make the long journey northeast to Nelspruit, which has become the de-facto home of Burkina Faso. The Burkinabé have not conceded a goal since the first half of their opening match at Mbombela Stadium, so for Ghana to progress to the finals that many are expecting them to win they’ll have to break an imposing 367-minute shutout streak.
The Black Stars, however, are the competition’s top-scorers through four matches and have been getting their offense from everywhere.
Espanyol midfielder Wakaso Mubarak is their surprise scoring leader with three goals so far, but Kwadwo Asamoah and Christian Atsu have also found the back of the net in South Africa. Those two, along with Wakaso and captain Asamoah Gyan, help form a dangerous four-pronged attack.
On Wednesday their assignment will be to find a way through the Stallions' imposing defensive partnership of Bakary Koné and Paul Koulibaly, who are shielded by midfielders Issouf Ouattara and Charles Kaboré.
At the other end of the park Burkina Faso will be hoping iconic striker Moumouni Dagano can nick one or that Jonathan Pitroipa repeats his heroics of Sunday, when he scored the extra-time winner against Togo in the quarterfinals.
Almost due south in Durban, two-time African champions Nigeria will be looking to derail the momentum of Mali, which has been inspired by the ongoing hostilities back home.
Mali captain Seydou Keita has been outspoken in his desire to bring happiness to his embattled countrymen—who have been resisting, along with French intervention, the aggression of Islamist rebels from the country’s north—and on Saturday conducted his post-match press conference with the Malian tricolor draped over his shoulder.
Mali won their quarterfinal against tournament hosts South Africa on penalties but will need to dig even deeper into their reserve of inspiration if they’re to beat Nigeria, who felled Ivory Coast on Sunday.
Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi was brave in selecting his Cup of Nations squad, opting to leave out establishment favourites Yakubu, Obafemi Martins, John Utaka and Peter Odemwingie. And despite a wealth of European talent at his beckon call, he brought five domestic-based players into his setup, two of which—defender Godfrey Oboabona of Sunshine Stars and Enugu Rangers midfielder Sunday Mba—started against the Ivorians. Mba scored what proved to be the winner with 12 minutes to play.
Keshi’s bravery has already been vindicated, and Nigeria should be tipped to advance to Sunday’s final in Johannesburg. But in their way is an opponent not only gifted in its own right, but motivated by current events as well. In any sport, at any level, that’s a formidable mix.
The following slides reveal four players—one from each team—who will be central to their side’s chances of reaching the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations final.
Koné started 23 Ligue 1 matches in an impressive debut season for Lyon in 2011-12 but was seen to have regressed the past few months and arrived at the Cup of Nations with just five starts under his belt in the current campaign.
In other words, he needed to use this tournament as a springboard to improved club form down the stretch, and he has done exactly that.
In tandem with Paul Koulibaly, the 24-year-old has helped stifle Ethiopia, Zambia and Togo in succession and will look to help keep yet another clean sheet against Ghana on Wednesday.
Gyan has been scoring for fun the past two seasons at Al Ain and even led the United Arab Emirates side to the league title in 2012. Not that many people noticed.
Now 27, one of Ghana’s standout players from the 2006 World Cup is once again leading his country’s attack with confidence and will draw no shortage of attention from the Burkina Faso defenders on Wednesday—something that may open up space for teammates Christian Atsu, Kwadwo Asamoah and Wakaso Mubarak.
Gyan came to South Africa with something to prove, and he’s been proving it throughout this Cup of Nations.
Who else? The 33-year-old Dalian Aerbin midfielder and UEFA Champions League winner with Barcelona has been Mali’s inspirational leader at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Right from the get-go, when he scored the only goal of Mali’s win against Niger in their Group B opener, he has led by example, and on Saturday it was his 58th-minute goal that sent his side into extra time, and eventually penalties, against South Africa.
Given Mali’s struggle for offense at this tournament, he will likely be required to chip in with another goal or two if the Eagles are to beat the Super Eagles on Wednesday.
The Chelsea midfielder has been imperious at this Cup of Nations and will be a candidate for Player of the Tournament when all is said and done.
Known as something of a hardman in the Premier League, the 25-year-old has delivered a string of mature performances in South Africa—marshalling a Nigeria midfield that has so often collapsed due to indiscipline.
The likes of Ideye Brown, Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike are more than capable of banging in the goals for the Super Eagles, but it is Mikel’s influence in the centre of the park that frees them to go about their business in the attacking third.