Nigeria, Mali try to finally breakthrough to final

TALES AZZONI AP Sports Writer Published:

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) -- Too many close calls in the last decade have left Nigeria and Mali with subdued confidence of making the African Cup final from their clash on Wednesday.

Mali has advanced to the semifinals for the second straight time, and fourth overall since 2002, but it hasn't reached the final since 1972.

Nigeria made it to the semis in six of the last eight tournaments but hasn't reached the final since 2000.

A two-time champion, Nigeria arrives slightly favored to progress after getting past Ivory Coast's star-filled squad in the quarterfinals. The Super Eagles are led by Chelsea duo Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel and also count on Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike.

Mali, which eliminated host South Africa in the quarters, is led by former Barcelona playmaker Seydou Keita.

"We know the Malians, they are going to be a very tough team to play against. And they know us as well," Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo said Tuesday. "I think there are no favorites. We are very highly motivated and we know they are as well. This is the bridge that we have between here and the final so we are going to do everything that we can to win."

Both teams are coming off big victories in the quarterfinals. Nigeria shocked Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast 2-1 in Rustenburg, and Mali overcame home-crowd favorite South Africa in a penalty shootout 3-1.

"We won a big game, we have the confidence, we have the belief. So we are going to come out very strong, give everything we have and hopefully win the game," Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo said. "There is no big difference on how we play, we are both very physical and tactically strong so it's going to be an interesting game."

Nigeria lost to Ghana 1-0 in its previous semifinal in 2010. It lost to Cameroon on penalties when it last reached the final in 2000.

Mali, playing in the tournament for the seventh straight time, reached last year's semifinal but lost 1-0 to Ivory Coast, eventually finishing third in what was its best appearance since the loss to Congo in the 1972 final.

"This is our fourth semifinal, so we truly want to make it to the final and we will do everything we can to make it happen," the 33-year-old Keita said.

Mali is hoping to provide more joy to its fans while French troops continue to fight with Islamist extremist in the country's north.

"Of course it is not nice to see what is happening," Mali striker Mahamadou Samassa said. "But I don't want to talk about it. We are hoping that we can make the people back home very happy. We know that football can unite people and heal many things. We believe that we can do the country proud and give our people the reason to rejoice and be happy."

Mali coach Patrice Carteron said he is trying to keep the team focused on the African Cup despite the problems back home.

"The goal is to give joy to the people in Mali but we can't put pressure on ourselves, we can't put the team in a difficult position," he said, through a translator. "We need to be prepared to try to make the final."

Carteron will be able to count on goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa after he missed the quarterfinal because of a suspension for yellow cards. He is expected to return to the lineup even though substitute Soumaila Diakite came up big with two saves in the shootout against South Africa.

Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi, the team captain when it won its last African title in 1994, can welcome back midfielder Fegor Ogude, who also missed the last match because of accumulated yellow card.

Keshi coached Mali from 2008-10 and knows it well.

"Mali is a football nation, they have great talent," he said. "I have a lot of admiration for Mali's team, for the players."

Keita downplayed the notion that Nigeria might have an advantage because Keshi coached Mali just a few years ago.

"Stephen knows us very well, and we know him too," Keita said. "I think that is why it will be a difficult game to play. It is going to be very complicated."

The Nigerians apparently will have the support of Drogba, who visited the team's dressing room after the quarterfinal.

"You guys should go and win the cup because you have shown the character of a champion," Drogba said, according to Nigeria's federation.

Following the match in Durban will be the second semi between Ghana and Burkina Faso in Nelspruit.

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