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African Cup of Nations: Nigeria coach silences doubters to reach final

With his team 4-0 up against Mali after an hour, Stephen Keshi, Nigeria's coach, would have been forgiven a moment to reflect, smugly if he wished, on all the pre-competition doubters. Ian Hawkey reports from Durban.

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 06: John Obi Mikel of Nigeria celebrates during the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations 1st Semi Final match between Mali and Nigeria at Moses Mabhida Stadium on February 06, 2013 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 160807384.jpg
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 06: John Obi Mikel of Nigeria celebrates during the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations 1st Semi Final match between Mali and Nigeria at Moses Mabhida Stadium on February 06, 2013 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 160807384.jpg

With his team 4-0 up after an hour, heading to their first African Cup of Nations final for 13 years, Stephen Keshi, Nigeria's coach, would have been forgiven a moment to reflect, smugly if he wished, on all the pre-competition doubters.

This Nigeria squad, he had heard long and loud, looked too raw and naive to conquer the continent. And how, it was wondered, could he drop the in-form, fleet-footed Peter Odemwingie?

Odemwingie has been making other headlines since his exclusion from Keshi's 23 - he made a dash to Queens Park Rangers from his English Premier League club West Bromwich Albion to try to accelerate a transfer that never was last week - and if he was watching his compatriots on television, he must have acknowledged how little he is missed by Nigeria; how many of Keshi's hunches have paid off.

The demolition of Mali was a study in the sort of counter-attacking speed and brilliant wing play Odemwingie specialises in, performed with the kind of swaggering confidence that will arm Nigeria formidably in Soweto for the final on Sunday.

Nigeria had a plan for Mali. By half-time, it had worked to devastating effect. "Four-four-two or 4-3-3?" Keshi mused, ahead of the match. "These sorts of things are no more than map you might look at before you go out there. Once the game starts the players make decisions."

He was being a little disingenuous. Keshi has built a strategy based on the pacey assets of his personnel and the front three, supported well from full-back and midfield, enjoyed asserting their superiority over a disorientated Mali defence.

It was Mali who needed the map, and maybe some roller skates, to keep up with the swooping, soaring Super Eagles.

After a first quarter hour in which, under overcast KwaZulu skies and characteristic Durban humidity that later yielded rain, there was inevitable caution, Ideye Brown put his foot on the accelerator. Chasing a long ball over the top, he zipped beyond a Mali rearguard caught square, and pumped an angled effort goalwards.

Mamadou Samassa saved well with an outstretched leg and would be relieved to see Victor Moses, picking up the ricochet, fire wide thanks to a defensive deflection.

Nigeria had sniffed vulnerability and they hounded it down. John Obi Mikel's long-range volley would be a further warning, arrowing just the wrong side of Samassa's left post. Moses then stabbed again at Mali's fragile left flank, a combination of pace and trickery earning him the space to cross low.

Elderson Echiejile, stooping almost to knee height to meet it with his head, put Nigeria 1-0 up.

Five minutes later, the lead had doubled. Moses, Brown and Emmanuel Emenike had been regularly swapping roles, taking shifts on each wing or occupying the centre-forward position. Emenike has propellers in his heels. This time he was the provider of the menacing pass from outside right. Brown, more closely policed by the Malians than Echiejile had been, diverted the ball past Samassa.

Nigeria continued to probe. Again finding room behind the Mali defence Ogenyo Onazi tried to chip Samassa, the keeper reaching high enough to prevent him; Brown had already drawn another save with a drive that bounced awkwardly in front of Samassa.

Goal number three was simple cruelty, a direct free kick skewing off the leg of Momo Sissoko, the Mali midfielder, so that Samassa was utterly wrong-footed.

Mali had no alternative than to push forward in the second half, but before that strategy - and the determined work of Cheick Biabate - had set up their one goal, 16 minutes from full-time, from Fanta Diarra, they would suffer again for leaving too much empty space between back four and goalkeeper.

Ahmed Musa had scarcely been on the field five minutes, a replacement for the injured Moses when he scored Nigeria's fourth, after enjoying leisurely time to advance on goal to finish cleanly and simply. The skies had opened by then, sending down a sheet of steady rain, although not enough of it to douse the joy of the Super Eagles.

 

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