As Ghana stuffed players into their own penalty box during the initial 10 minutes after taking the lead, the game slowed down considerably, as Burkina Faso tried to calm themselves down after going behind. Their opponents did not give up attacking however, and almost doubled their lead just before the half-hour mark, with Christian Atsu linking up Gyan to put the forward through, who could not finish from a tight angle.
At the other end, Burkina Faso had their best chance of the night so far soon after. After Koffi’s lofted, diagonal ball was wonderfully plucked out of the air, Nakoulma fired way over the bar from the resulting volley, after considerable pressure from both the centre-backs. Wishing he had done better, the referee soon called for half-time, allowing the teams to mull over their plans for the second half.
As the players emerged from the dressing room, things seemed to be largely the same. Ghana trying to strike on the counter, and Burkina Faso lacking the final ball to equalise, with Pitroipa’s role on the wing making him far less effective that through the middle. Bance continued to do well for Burkina Faso though; holding up the ball well when required of him, and running around all over the pitch to retrieve the ball for his country. Indeed, the big forward was almost rewarded for his efforts on 50 minutes, as a Geoff Hurst moment seemed to strike the stadium in Nelspruit. Seemingly heading a free header over the line, with a visible ripple of the net, the ball was pushed out by Dauda, with considerable protest from the Burkinabe players. Replays showed an excellent decision by the referee, with the ball remaining the right side of the line to keep Ghana ahead.
Back at the other end, it was Ghana’s turn to do the “GOAL OH NO WAIT” ritual. Atsu once again put a glorious ball across from the left for Gyan, whose side foot had the goalkeeper beaten but not the post, as it ricocheted back to be hacked away by the Burkina Faso defence. The Porto midfielder’s work was a constant threat for Ghana, with his superb playmaking being a constant issue for Burkina Faso, and had it not been for some poor finishing by Ghana may have finished the game off.
Sensing they had been let off the hook, Burkina Faso seized their chance. Catching Badu in possession, Kabore played the ball through the massive gap which spanned the two centre backs Vorsah and Boye, right to Bance’s feet. With all the time in the world, the big man kept his cool and slotted past Dauda, in what was undoubtedly a very deserved goal.
From this point, players began to tire. Having been a long tournament already – especially for Burkina Faso, who had only had 2 days rest following 120 minute game against Togo – various players limped around with cramp, as the pace slowed down a little. Bance’s dogged approach to get the ball wasn’t quite the same, and other than a little scrap between Koulibaly and Gyan (in which the former should have probably been sent off for kicking out) the game petered out without major incidence. Extra-time was on the horizon for these players, who were already acting like they’d just completed a marathon.
Indeed, with the scoreline 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes, it was time for the thy-slapping and awkward-looking stretching to prep for the upcoming half hour of football. And with the defenders now beginning to tire, the match opened up considerably.
After Afful had a volley parried away by Diakite from a narrow angle, Koulibaly up the other end found himself in plenty of place after the ball ran through to him at the far post, only for him to sky it rather than put his team in front. Continuing to press, Bance fired a shot miles over after trying to steam roller through the defence, before Burkina Faso had another goal disallowed. As Boye held off Nakoulma so his keeper could come and collect the bouncing ball, the Bukinabe winger got a toe to the ball before Daouda could get there, and the ball rolled into the net. Thinking he had won it for his team, the celebrations were immediately halted by the referee who adjudged Nakoulma to have fouled Boye. In what was arguably a soft call, in a battle which was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, penalties loomed over Nelspruit to decide who would reach this year’s final against Nigeria.
Centre-back Isaac Vorsah’s scuff did not get Ghana off to the greatest of starts, as he missed their first one, before Bakary Kone kept his cool and gave Burkina the advantage. After Atsu, Traore and then Affull slotted there’s in with limited convincingness, it was Paul Koulibaly next up, and his miss meant that things were level at 2-2 for the 4th round of penalties.
However, Emmanuel Clottey did not manage to convert his, putting pressure on Aristide Bance to put the Stallions ahead in the shootout going into the final round. Stepping up the spot, the SFG man of the match who looks shockingly like Greek god Neptune, did what no one expected: a Panenka. Thoughts of “good feet for a big lad” entered the minds of cliché commentators across the world, as the ball gracefully dinked into the goal, with the keeper fooled and diving to one side. How can you possibly follow that?
Fittingly, it was the last penalty to be scored. Diakite saved Badu’s penalty, meaning that the dark horses of the tournament had done it: they’d reached the final. Despite talisman Alain Traore’s absence, the Stallions’ stern defence, creative talent of Pitroipa (who is suspended for the final) and bulldog-esque effort from Aristide Bance had beaten their previous record of semi-final to get to the final hurdle. With Koffi leading them in prayer, there was not one person in the stadium who looked at that group of players thinking they didn’t deserve it.
As for Ghana, well it’s becoming a very familiar story. Whilst Ivory Coast are famous for being the nearly men, Ghana’s 3 semi-final exits in the past four AFCONs has gone unnoticed, as defence lapses and poor finishing cost them dear. Despite numerous exemptions from the squad for various reasons, you would have expected Ghana to challenge more than they did this competition, especially with the relatively emphatic way they got through the group stages.
Alas, it was not to be. Instead, Burkina Faso will face Nigeria in the final of AFCON 2013, in a final that I’m sure will not fail to disappoint.
NIGERIA 4-1 MALI
Nigeria steamed through to their first Cup of Nations final since 2000 with a comfortable 4-1 win over Mali. The Super Eagles will now face Burkina Faso in Sunday’s final while Mali will contest the 3rd place play-off – for the 4th time in 6 Afcons – against Ghana on Saturday, a repeat of last Afcon’s play-off.
Nigeria coach Steve Keshi stuck with the same XI which delivered an intrepid performance against the tournament favourites Ivory Coast. Mali coach Patrice Carteron, in contrast, went for a more adventurous approach, omitting the hard-tackling Samba Sow for Kalilou Traore, their famed brawn diminished further by the absence of Samba Diakite, who failed to recover in time from his concussion. Another change came at the heart of defence where the experienced centre-back Adama Coulibaly was replaced by Mahamadou N’Diaye.
After the customary cagey opening and a good early spell by Mali, it was Nigeria who took the lead on 25 minute. Tireless left-back Adama Tamboura thought he had Moses in a basket but was bamboozled by the trickery of the attacking midfielder. Elderson Echiejile ghosted in behind the sleepy Mali defence to stoop and head home Moses’ cross.
The score was doubled just minutes later with a goal of beautiful simplicity. Moses broke through the Mali midfield, releasing Emenike who was breaking down the right and laid the ball into the path of Brown Ideye, who bundled in past Samassa.
With Nigeria ahead and Mali with no choice but to quest to level the proceedings, the game opened up; suiting the Super Eagles perfectly. Predictably, Emenike made it three, albeit in fortuitous circumstances, just before the break. Onazi laid off a free-kick to the Spartak Moscow striker and his shot took a massive deflection off Sissoko in the parting wall, wrong-footing Samassa and creeping into the goal.
The sorry Malians emerged from the interval hoping to complete a historic comeback and captain Seydou Keita nearly gave them the perfect start to the half, finding space in the box but steering the ball wide. Although Nigeria had precautionary taken off Moses after he had a knock, they were able to bring on quality in the form of Ahmed Musa. On the hour, just minutes after replacing Moses, beat the offside trap down the right and fired home through Samassa’s legs to all but ensure Nigeria’s passage to the final.
Mali rallied, trying to make the score more respectable. Substitute Cheick Diarra grabbed the consolation for Les Aigles in the 75th minute, stroking the ball home, after some good composure and awareness by Cheick Diabate to create the opening and pull it back to him. Diarra almost scored another in added time, but his effort curled just over Enyeama’s bar.
Man of the Match: John Obi Mikel
A difficult decision as there were so many good Nigerian performances, but Mikel delivered another brilliant display; play-breaking and controlling the tempo through his range of passing. Samassa and Keita did their best to limit the space the midfielder had in the early stages, but they couldn’t handle him in the end.