Nigeria vs Burkina Faso: Key Battles to Watch in African Cup of Nations Final
Sunday sees the 29th Africa Cup of Nations final (AFCON), with favourites Nigeria taking on rank outsiders Burkina Faso at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg to bring down the curtain on what has been a fabulous three weeks of football in South Africa.
The showdown is a repeat of these two nations’ Group C opener, which ended in a 1-1 draw, although both sides go into the contest with differing emotions.
For the Super Eagles, this represents a chance to win their first continental title since 1994, and third overall, in what is their first appearance in the final since 2000.
However, Sunday’s showpiece event is the Stallions’ first ever AFCON final and they enter it without top scorer Alain Traore due to a thigh injury picked up in the group stages against Zambia.
So ahead of the final we take a look at the key battles that will decide who will emerge as 2013 AFCON champions …
Stephen Keshi V Paul Put
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The battle on the sidelines is likely to be just as crucial as those that will take place on the field of play, with two vastly contrasting characters lining up in the respective dugouts.
On the Burkina Faso bench is 56-year-old Belgium-born Put, a man best known for having received a three-year ban for match-fixing while coach of Lierse in the Jupiler League.
However, what Put has done with the Stallions is nothing short of remarkable, especially when you consider that going into the tournament they had never won a AFCON match on foreign soil, but the Belgian, who coached Gambia previously, has managed to instil a confidence and belief in his players that has carried them all the way to the final.
It is this freedom to express themselves which makes Burkina Faso such dangerous opponents.
In the other dugout sits Keshi (pictured), looking to become just the second man in the tournament’s 56-year history to win the AFCON as both a player and a coach after Egypt’s Mahmoud El Gohary, with the 51-year-old having captained the Super Eagles to victory on the last occasion they won the competition 19 years ago.
"The Big Boss," as he is known, arrived in South Africa under huge pressure, with the national press, supporters and even government officials back home all criticising his team selections. However, the disciplinarian has stuck to his principles, especially when it came to his preference for selecting mainly domestic-based players, and his decisions have been truly vindicated with Nigeria now within touching distance of redemption.
Godfrey Oboabona V Aristide Bance
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Sunshine Stars centre-back Oboabona (pictured) has enjoyed an excellent tournament to date having recovered well from a poor first group game against Burkina Faso, when it was his mistake late on that allowed Traore to snatch an injury-time equaliser.
Oboabona has grown in confidence at the back while also being a strong, powerful presence in the opposition penalty box, especially when attacking set pieces, as we saw against Ethiopia.
And Oboabona is going to need to be on top of his game in Johannesburg against in-form Burkina Fasco front man Bance, who only made his first start of the tournament in their semifinal win over Ghana, but left quite an impression nonetheless.
The 28-year-old was a lively presence up front, constantly harrying the Black Stars’ defence and capping a fine display with a coolly-taken side-footed finish to draw his side level.
And, if the Stallions are to cause an upset, then you feel that Bance will need to emerge victorious in this particular battle.
Emmanuel Emenike V Daouda Diakite
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Nigeria striker Emenike is the current top scorer in the competition, having netted in the group stage against Burkina Faso and Zambia before finding the target against Ivory Coast in the last eight and Mali in the semifinals, where he also created a goal for the Super Eagles.
The Spartak Moscow player looks in a confident state of mind at present judging by the way he took his opportunity against the Elephants and allied with his impressive work-rate, he is sure to be a real handful for the Burkina Fasco defence on Sunday.
However, if there is one man who can stop him from adding to his four strikes it is Stallions goalkeeper Diakite (pictured), a player in the form of his life ever since coming into the team to replace suspended first-choice shot-stopper Adboulaye Soulama, who was sent off in the group phase against Ethiopia.
The 29-year-old has not really had a great deal to do in most of the games he has played, however, when he has been called upon the reserve keeper has excelled, so much so that the team has barely missed Soulama’s presence between the sticks, with Diakite deservedly keeping his place in goal even after the former’s return from suspension.
Burkina Faso coach Put clearly has great confidence in his keeper, who has conceded just once in almost 500 minutes of action and made the match-winning save from the spot in their shoot-out win against Ghana that got them to the final.
And, if Diakite can repeat some of the vital stops he made against Togo in the last eight and Ghana in the semi-finals, then we may just be talking about a new winner of this competition come Sunday night.
Victor Moses V Mady Panandetiguiri
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The Chelsea winger (pictured) has enjoyed a wonderful competition so far, not looking back after missing the opening Group C draw with Burkina Faso with a hamstring injury and providing the Super Eagles with much-needed pace, penetration and creativity down their right flank. Moses scored two goals against Ethiopia, albeit both from the penalty spot.
However, it has been Moses’ deadly deliveries from the wing that have caused opposition defences the most trouble, as seen when the 22-year-old laid Elderson Echiejile’s opening goal on a plate in their semifinal win over Mali and Keshi will be praying that he recovers from his ankle injury in time to play on Sunday.
Charged with stopping Moses is Burkina Faco left-back Panandetiguiri, and if there is one player with the form to take this challenge on and succeed, then it is the 28-year-old.
In spite of giving away a spot kick in the semi-final against Ghana, the Antwerp full back has otherwise been a model of consistency for the Stallions, even being on hand at the right time to make a crucial goal-line clearance to deny Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor from opening the scoring in the quarterfinals.
He is going to need to show every ounce of that dogged determination when coming up against speedster Moses at Soccer City if the biggest upset in AFCON final history is to materialise.
Mikel John Obi V Djakaridja Kone
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Nigeria’s captain (pictured) has shone brightly throughout the tournament, being both a calming and a creative influence on his team, with his big-game experience coming to the fore, especially in the absence of ex-skipper Joseph Yobo.
The Chelsea midfield player was impressive when the two countries met in their Group C opener, playing a hand in Nigeria’s opening goal. Despite missing from the spot in their next match against Zambia, it did not affect his all-round performance as he set up Emenike’s goal.
However, perhaps Mikel’s best display to date came in the quarterfinal win over Ivory Coast when he overshadowed Yaya Toure to win the key midfield contest, and the tie, and you get the feeling that unless Burkina Faso can find a way to stop Nigeria’s main man come Sunday, then it will be the 25-year-old lifting the trophy at the FNB Stadium.
And the man given that tough assignment by Burkina Faso coach Put is defensive midfield player Kone, who himself has enjoyed a highly effective campaign so far, even popping up with an unexpected goal in the Stallions’ group-phase thrashing of Ethiopia when he was a constant attacking menace.
But it will be in his own half that the Evian man will be most needed come kickoff time in Johannesburg on Sunday as he looks to keep track of Mikel and snuff out his attacking threat, which if he succeeds in doing will give the underdogs a chance of victory.