Nigeria hope to extend an unbeaten run over fellow west Africans Mali when they clash today for the chance to play in the Africa Cup of Nations final.
Several months ago, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan charged the Super Eagles to reach the Cup of Nations final as he wishes to watch them play in Johannesburg to kick off the country’s celebrations of 150 years as a nation.
After a labored group-phase campaign, the Super Eagles defied the odds last Sunday to beat title favorites Ivory Coast 2-1 and set up an early-evening showdown against the Eagles at Moses Mabhida Stadium in the port city of Durban.
Mali also proved popular expectations wrong to edge past hosts South Africa after a penalty shootout.
The countries have clashed at full international level six times, with four of those matches at the Cup of Nations. Nigeria won three and the others were drawn.
The last meeting of the Super Eagles and the Eagles was at the 2008 tournament in Ghana and it finished goalless.
Nigeria forward Emmanuel Emenike insists they have put behind them the shock 2-1 quarter-final triumph over Ivory Coast and are focused on beating Mali because the target is to be crowned African champions a third time.
“We want to win the trophy and won’t get carried away because we beat the Ivory Coast, as we still have two more games to win before we can be crowned champions,” said the Spartak Moscow striker, who has netted three times.
Young defender Kenneth Omeruo said he does not expect an easy game against Mali, who have been in Durban for more than a week and will be better rested as they played their quarter-final a day before the Super Eagles.
“It will be a tough game, but we hope to come out victorious. We are focused on it and I believe we will zoom into the final,” Omeruo said.
Striker Brown Ideye added: “If we can play the way we did against Ivory Coast, Mali can’t stop us. It will be a different game and we won’t underrate them.”
Former Barcelona star Seydou Keita remains the Mali talisman, as he was last year when they finished third in Gabon behind Zambia and Ivory Coast.
The 33-year-old midfielder has scored twice to keep Mali on track for a first Cup of Nations triumph after finishing runners-up to Congo Brazzaville 41 years ago in Yaounde.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron has consistently maintained he wishes to improve on what compatriot Alain Giresse achieved with the team last year and that means at least reaching the final.
“The target for us has been to improve on what the team achieved last year and so far we are on course to doing so,” the former Olympique Lyonnais “hard man” said.