After two dramatic, engrossing semis, Africa awaits an unlikely final between Nigeria and Burkina Faso. The winner will take the continent's highest prize, whilst defeat means the end of the road and regret that may last a lifetime.
Few saw Stephen Keshi's young Nigerian side as potential finalists, while even fewer will have envisaged Paul Put's Burkina Faso team making it all the way to the centrepiece occasion.
In this article, I'll look at the five key players who will be keen to have their say as to the destination of Africa's greatest prize.
Before the semifinal, I suggested that this was the tournament where Victor Moses emerged as a bona fide international star, and this was in line with my predictions before the competition. The Chelsea man shows no sign of letting up, and his performance against Mali in Durban will live long in the memories of Naija’s fans.
After being left out for the Super Eagles’ first game, his influence has grown; he was the catalyst against Ethiopia in the final group game and the difference between progression and elimination. Here, his dribbling speed terrified the central Africans into giving away two penalties; against Ivory Coast he was once again devastatingly effective, as Nigeria’s impressive tempo felled the favourites.
However, against Mali in the semifinal, Moses’s class shone through like never before in the famous green of the national side. In a first half performance that was at times mesmeric, Moses set up Elderson for the opening goal, his sharp running and delicious turn giving the left back no choice but to head the Super Eagles ahead, before also creating the space needed to play in Emmanuel Emenike and, subsequently, Ideye Brown for Naija’s second.
If he can overcome the slight fitness scare that saw him replaced 50 minutes into the semi, the final gives him an opportunity to write himself into Afcon folklore.
Before the tournament, I identified Super Eagles frontman Ike Uche as the top scorer. I envisaged that Nigeria’s creative and dynamic midfield could, if it clicked, provide a great deal for whoever led the line. Whilst I was right about Nigeria’s creative capacity, I was wrong about the identity of the striker.
Uche has been reduced to a peripheral figure during the tournament, watching on while the combination of Emenike and Brown has dominated the side’s attacking responsibilities. The former, in particular, has impressed.
Currently tied on four goals with Ghana’s Wakaso Mubarak as the tournament’s top scorer, the striker has also been one of the stand-out performers of the competition. Not only has he scored crucial goals—the opener against the Ivory Coast and the third against Mali for example—but he has also contributed to his side’s build-up play and worked hard for the team.
Perhaps crucially, it was his goal that kick-started Nigeria’s tournament, in their opening game against the Stallions; a repeat of that on Sunday would go down in history for the Super Eagles.
Rarely has one team’s cup run been so beset by misfortune and injustice as Burkina Faso’s fairytale slalom to this year’s nation’s cup centrepiece. In the group stage they wowed a continent by sealing a late draw against Nigeria, holding Zambia at arm’s length and battering Ethiopia. The hero of that early stage was Alain Traore, but cruelly, his Cup of Nations has been all but ended by a thigh injury.
Few saw any hope for the West Africans after Traore’s personal tragedy, but Jonathan Pitroipa had other ideas, and he has stepped up to become the team’s new talisman.
His extra time winner against Togo secured a dramatic, emotional return to the semi final stage, where the Stallions came up against the much-fancied Black Stars of Ghana.
Here, the Rennes midfielder was the darting, prompting creator in a firecracker of a contest. However, while his inventive and ambitious play gave the Burkina the initiative, his own participation ended long before the decisive penalty shootout.
Pitroipa received a second yellow, for simulation, after quite clearly being brought down in the Ghanaian box. A massive decision for the referee to make, however, staying true to his indifferent performance throughout the evening, Tunisian official Slim Jdidi made a disastrous call and sent the Burkinabe winger off.
The future looked grim for Pitroipa, the red ruling him out of Burkina Faso’s maiden Afcon final. Fortunately, the gods of fortune appear finally to be smiling on the Upper Volta, as Jdidi’s aberration has been overturned.
Good news for Burkina Faso perhaps, but not so for Nigeria, who now have to prepare to combat his speed and innovation in the continental centrepiece.
Being frank with you all, I am even surprising myself as I write this paragraph. Whilst I certainly didn’t see Burkina Faso making it all this way, it was even more unthinkable that I’d be commending the wayward and thoroughly inconsistent talents of Aristide Bancé.
The striker has endured a tough time with critics over the years, being maligned for his lack of effort, his ferocious (and often inaccurate) shooting ability as well as his bizarre haircut, one witty journalist giving him the affectionate moniker ‘Old Chip Head’.
His semifinal performance against Ghana, after being included at the expense of Moumouni Dagano, summed him up in a glorious microcosm. Beguiling throughout with his impressive movement and determination, Bancé proceeded to waste a clutch of glorious chances, his shots blazing over, or dribbling wide.
However, with villainy only a spot kick away, the FC Augsburg striker was in no mood to take the easy option. His Panenka-style penalty, chipped down the centre of the Ghanaian goal, came under the most intense pressure—it was the biggest kick in the history of Burkinabé football, and it secured the nation’s place in the final.
Can Bancé achieve immortality with the Stallions on Sunday?
So, what a turn around it’s been. Three months ago he was the nation’s darling, delivering a midfield masterclass as the Super Eagles tore strips from the Lone Stars of Liberia to qualify for the Afcon. However, in the dark early days of the side’s Cup efforts, as leads were thrown away against Burkina Faso and Zambia, Mikel often found himself as the fall guy among the Nigerian press.
Was he not dominating game’s enough, stamping his authority on opposition midfielders not as established as he? Was he influencing those around him as he potentially could, the young Ogenyi Onazi in particular? Was he protecting the inexperienced back line behind him?
While those criticisms might have stood early on, with the Chelsea man attempting the glitz and the glamour rather than the bread and the butter, the last few performances have demonstrated his worth 10 times over.
Perhaps it was the presence of former-mentor Didier Drogba in the quarter final against the Cote d’Ivoire, but Mikel’s performance that evening, and in the semifinal against Mali, were arguably among the finest delivered by a West African midfielder on the continental stage over the last decade. The player rolled back the years to revive some of the magic of his youth.
Having played in a Champions League Final, Mikel will be the only one of the 22 players on show to have comparable big-game experience, and the young man may need to call upon every minute of that euphoric victory to inspire a repeat performance with this young Nigeria side.