Nigeria beats Mali, returns to African Cup final

TALES AZZONI AP Sports Writer Published:

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) -- Nigeria cruised to a 4-1 win over Mali on Wednesday to reach the African Cup final for the first time in more than a decade.

Nigeria dominated from the start and scored three first-half goals to quickly end Mali's hopes of lifting the trophy -- and bringing joy to the fans enduring political instability and conflicts back home.

Elderson Echiejile opened the scoring in the 25th minute, Brown Ideye extended the lead after a breakaway in the 30th and Emmanuel Emenike netted from a free kick in the 44th.

Substitute Ahmed Musa added the fourth in the 60th and Cheick Diarra scored Mali's consolation goal in the 75th.

The Super Eagles will next face either Ghana or Burkina Faso, which meet later Wednesday in Nelspruit.

Nigeria dominated African football throughout the 1990s but hasn't been successful since. Now bidding to win the title for the third time -- and first since 1994 -- it has not reached the final since 2000.

Mali, with captain Seydou Keita ineffective through most of the match, was trying to reach the final for the first time in more than 30 years. It had also been eliminated in the semis in last year's tournament.

Players had said throughout the week that they wanted to win Wednesday to bring joy to fans in a country engulfed by political turmoil and clashes between French troops and Islamist extremists.

Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi, who captained the team which won the title in 1994, said the speed of his attack made the difference on Wednesday.

"We know the team of Mali is very good, with Keita and other very good players," Keshi said. "But we also know that they are a little bit slow so we have taken advantage of that, trying to be quick with the ball when attacking."

Keita, a former Barcelona playmaker, missed yet another chance to win a title with his national team.

"Nigeria won today because it was a better team," Keita said. "We played against a very good team."

It didn't take long before Nigeria took control of the match at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

Spartak Moscow's Emenike and Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel both had chances early, but it was Echiejile who found the net first after a nice move by Victor Moses, Mikel's club teammate. The striker beat a defender near the touchline before sending over a cross to Echiejile, who ran behind the defenders to head home.

Moses started the move for the second goal in a counterattack just five minutes later. He sent a perfect through ball to Emenike and the striker quickly found Ideye inside the area for an easy shot.

Emenike added to the lead just before halftime with a low free kick that deflected off the wall before reaching the far post, while Musa was left completely unmarked to score an easy goal in the second half.

Musa had only been on the pitch for three minutes, having replaced Moses because of an injury. Details were not immediately available and his status for the final remains unclear. The team's leading striker apparently injured a muscle.

"We'll know about that tomorrow (Thursday), the doctors probably will need to do some scans, then we'll know better," Keshi said. "Hopefully it's not bad, because we need everybody in the team. We'll just cross our fingers."

Musa had a goal disallowed for offside in the following attack by Nigeria.

Mali kept possession near the end and threatened on a few occasions. Cheick Diarra scored Mali's lone goal with a shot from inside the area after a move started by Cheick Diabate.

Nigeria entered the semifinal motivated by a victory over Ivory Coast's star-filled squad in the quarterfinals, while Mali eliminated host nation South Africa.

Keshi knew the Mali players well after coaching the team from 2008-10, including during an African Cup of Nations.

"There is no relationship between what happened today and Mr. Keshi," Mali coach Patrice Carteron said. "He knows certain players but not all the players. I'm proud of these players even though we didn't reach the final."

Keshi is trying to become the first black African coach to win the cup since Ivory Coast's Yeo Martial in 1992. Kwesi Appiah will also get the chance this year if his Ghana team advances to the final.

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