It is a very significant wafcon) semifinals where Nigeria, after 19 years seek to prove doubters wrong by clinching the ultimate prize against Mali that have been knocking at the finals door to no avail severally; and four times champions but without a win in thirty one years, Ghana against Burkina Faso who are coming to the semis for only the second time. Yes I said wafcon, because it is an all-west African semifinals duel for the very first time. Closest to such was Senegal ’92 with three countries from one region where we witnessed a very cagey match, leading to grueling penalties that Ivory Coast finally triumphs over Ghana.
On paper, easy picking for Ghana and Nigeria because of their pedigree in this tournament but to your peril when you ignore the Malians that are ranked third in Africa by Fifa and looking to do one better than the last time or a Burkina Faso team that topped the group involving Nigeria and the defending champions Zambia whom they dumped out of the tournament. It is a battle of groups B against C!
Ghana versus Burkina Faso: The group winners square against each other with one name conspicuously missing from this match; Alain traore who single handedly led Burkina Faso to top group C with his three goals in two games, he was in scintillating form until he picked up an injury to end his afcon 2013 exploits early though the team managed a slim One-nil victory over the Adebayor’s led Togo in the quarters but can the team hold their own against the very exciting, talented and solid Ghanaian team? We have seen the Burkina Faso team very cautious and difficult to break down especially when playing against stronger opponents like Nigeria and Zambia but very direct and clinical when facing teams at par or weaker like when they faced Ethiopia, destroying them even with a man down. They also have the best defensive record conceding only one goal against Nigeria in their first game. They defend well and take their chances when they come so much that it is very difficult to find a loophole in the team. Coach Paul Put has set them playing in a 4 5 1 and I don’t expect any change to that formation as it will be a good counter to anything that the black stars will throw at them. The Burkinabe will be counting on star striker Moumouni Dagano, the country’s top goal scorer of all time, midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa for goals and defender Bakary Kone to solidify the defence. Another thing in their favour is the fact that they should be used to the very bad pitch in Nelspruit. Nelpruit is where they have played all their matches losing none!
The Ghanaians have not taken a wrong step in terms of performance in this tournament with only one scare in the first game against DR Congo where they lost concentration in the second half to let a two goal lead slip to draw two all. In my opinion, they seem to have the best crop of young talented players in Africa. After winning the junior world cup, Ghana fared well by grooming and guiding these players and blending them with the senior team that went to their first world cup in 2006 to form a formidable team that took on the world in 2010 world cup, almost making it to the semis until the hand of one Lius Suarez stopped them. They were unfortunate in the last edition losing to eventual winners Zambia in the semis and will be looking to get one better. They also have a good defense conceding only two so far while having the most potent strike force with eights in the tournament. The low point for me will be Coach Kwesi Appiah, who despite the array of stars at his disposal has failed to win a match convincingly save Niger. The team lost concentration in the first game throwing away a two goal lead, was very fortunate and benefited from the poor officiating in the game against Mali and was outplayed in the quarters against tournament shock team Cape Verde. I am sure the coach will not start the same lineup of the last game, change some personnel though sticking to his 4 5 1 formation that turns three when in possession of the ball. They will benefit from experienced players like John Pantsil, Asamoah Gyan, Kwadwo Asamoah, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, skills of Christian Astu and the potency Mubarak Wakaso for their title winning ambitions. Their best bet to the finals will be to push up, be very quick and take their chances when they come as the only weakness to the Stallions is waiting too long in their half allowing opposing teams to create chances.
Mali versus Nigeria: The battle of the eagles and the winner will be the one flying highest on match day. The rankings favour Mali who would like to improve on their last performance of a third place finish, while pedigree and meetings between both teams favours Nigeria. The super eagles twice beat them to the bronze in 2002 and 2004 while also eliminating them in the group phases in 2008. A rejuvenated Malian side led by the very talented and calm captain of the team Seydou Keita, a former Barcelona star, took the world by storm in the junior world cup in Nigeria ’99 when he also was captain of the Malian side. The team is known for its grit, very compact and difficult to break down. Defensively very discipline, very solid in the midfield and not very potent up front but always come up with the odd goal to win the game. They have silently approached each game as it comes cautiously carrying out their game plan to the last instruction to achieve results. Coach Patrice Carteron has done very well for the side improving on the good job by his predecessor compatriot Alain Giresse. They have quality in every department of the team and the coach will be excited by the return of Goal keeper Mamadou Samassa though Soumbeila Diakite did well in their last match against the host South Africa where they won via penalties, he is expected back in the bench. The midfield is very tight and energetic, running their opponent out of steam in most games. They play a very combative 4 5 1 formation and their best bet to beat the Nigerians will be to soak the early pressure, patiently wear them out, frustrate them with delay tactic and antics, and to take their chances when the opportunity comes to at least equal their best performance of 1972. They will need the experience of defenders Adama Coulibaly and Adama Tamboura to check the very strong Emenike while Modibo Maiga,Cheick Diabate, Sissoko and the rest must bring their A-game to fore.
The super eagles of Nigeria seem to have leaped from pretenders in this tournament to favorites since beating Ivory Coast tipped by most pundits to win the afcon. They were led to the field to be trampled by the elephants but they soared high above expectations playing their best game in the tournament. They are the most in form team coming into the semifinals improving with every game they have played in. Coming into the tournament proper, they came with seventeen debutants out of twenty three amongst them six home-based players. The coach Stephen Keshi had a running battle with the press and fans for dropping high flying and established players like Martin, Taiwo, Odemweigie and the rest but he stood his ground and said he believed in this crop of players. They seem to be taking him to the promise land and even the worst of critic would not mind drinking from the trophy with Keshi but how well they perform against their fellow eagles will determine that. The whole team though largely unknown in world football is filled with match winners. Every game has its own class act; Emenike, Mikel, Moses, Mba, Omeruo, Vincent Enyeama have all stood out in different matches not undermining the efforts of the rest like Brown Ideye who was outstanding against the Burkinabe and the elephants of Cote d’Ivoire. They are very tight and hardly give chances away to their opponents though conceding three goals; it will surprise you that they are the team least troubled so far in the tournament. The penalty maybe poor but the other two goals were due to lack of concentration which is about their only and biggest weakness. The coaching crew are still yet to impress me with high technical and tactical input to the team’s playing style though their 4 3 3 formation and personnel was spot on against the Ivorians. Ik Uche, Ahmed, Onazi, Nosa yet to peak with Ejike and Reuben yet to taste action, one just but can’t imagine where the next class act will emerge from. I still expect the same formation but a change of playing personnel will just do the trick as the Malians may not know where they will be hit from. The match against the other eagles will be tougher so I expect them to be patient, not get carried away by their new tag as favorites and add bite and passion to their amoury and they will just find themselves in the finals come February 10th.
This is afcon where ranks, tags and form books are thrown overboard, and it is the semifinals where anything can happen. Will the stallions of Burkina Faso shoot down the black stars of Ghana or will the eagles of Mali soar higher than the super eagles of Nigeria? Only time will tell but we hope to see the best teams in the final. My semifinals call was smeared by the scintillating performance of the super eagles so this time I’ll heed my intuition; I’m sticking to Nigeria and Burkina Faso finals!
Written by Damiete Tonte Sanipe “the voice” (343)