Soccer

Mighty Nigeria, surprising Burkina Faso seek African Cup

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Associated Press
2/9/2013 11:56:49 AM
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nigeria will be trying to lift the African Cup trophy again after nearly two decades when it faces a Burkina Faso team hoping for an upset and its first major title on Sunday.

Nigeria is back in the final after 13 years and has a chance to win the title for the first time since it dominated African football in the 1990s.

Burkina Faso is in its first final and enters the decisive match looking to shock African football just like Zambia did when it beat Ivory Coast last year.

Burkina Faso will have leading striker Jonathan Pitroipa available after his red card in the semifinals was rescinded, but it remained unclear if injured Nigerian attacking duo Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike will be fit for the match at Soccer City.

"I will wait until the last minute and by Sunday we will know whether the boys will play or not," Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said Saturday. "I can understand the apprehension of the public over the two players but we must be a little patient, because I know that the two of them want to play in the final and the medical team is working round the clock."

The final will be a rematch of the teams' opener in Group C, which ended in a 1-1 draw after Nigeria conceded an injury-time equalizer in Nelspruit.

"Luck is a very important element in football but please do not forget we have a quality team and very good players," Burkina Faso midfielder Charles Kabore said. "Of course Nigeria is a little bit favoured, but we are going to give our best. We are now in the final and the pressure is not with us. There is nothing to lose for Burkina Faso. There is everything to gain."

Nigeria is seeking its first title since 1994 and third overall. The Super Eagles are touted as the favourite after rebounding from a sluggish start in the group stage. The team looked impressive when it beat Ivory Coast's star-filled squad 2-1 in the quarterfinals and thrashed Seydou Keita's Mali 4-1 in the semifinals.

Nigeria was the team to beat in African football in the 1990s with a squad captained by Keshi. It made the semifinals in five of the last seven tournaments but was never able to break through with the trophy.

"We know the importance of the game. We've come this far, as a group we want to win it but it's football, everything can happen," Nigeria defender Joseph Yobo said. "It's been a long time."

Burkina Faso, ranked only 23rd in Africa entering the tournament, reached the semifinals for only the second time -- and the first since it hosted the tournament in 1998. The Stallions initially just hoped to make it past the group stage, but the expectations were raised after they eliminated Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo 1-0 in the quarterfinals and favourite Ghana on penalties in the semis.

"We respect a lot the team of Nigeria. They have big players who play in the highest level in Europe, so we all know that," said Burkina Faso coach Paul Put, who was banned from Belgian football from 2008-11 in connection with a match-fixing scandal.

After last year's final, the Belgian is confident that the African Cup may provide another surprising finish this year. In 2012, Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast arrived at the final strongly favoured to win its first title but was stunned by Zambia 8-7 in a penalty shootout.

"I think in football you never know," he said. "You have to play the game and at the end when the referee is blowing you will know the result."

Burkina Faso was delayed travelling from Nelspruit to Johannesburg after the semifinal because of problems with flight connections.

"It was very difficult," Put said. "We were stuck in the airport for 10 hours. The players' legs were very heavy yesterday (at training.)"

It will help that Put will be able to count on Pitroipa on Sunday after the Confederation of African Football rescinded the yellow card that led to his sending off in the semifinals.

The ruling body on Friday overturned the decision by now-suspended referee Slim Jdidi to book the striker for diving in the final minutes of extra time. The confederation said the Tunisian referee conceded he had made a mistake.

Pitroipa would have been heavily missed as Burkina Faso is already without injured Alain Traore, who scored three goals early in the tournament.

Keshi, meanwhile, still doesn't know whether he will be able to count on his top forwards because of injuries. Spartak Moscow's Emenike, one of the tournament's leading scorers with four goals, is nursing a muscle injury, while Chelsea's Moses is treating a twisted left ankle.

Moses converted two late penalty kicks in the team's final group match against Ethiopia, saving it from early elimination.

Keshi is trying to become the first African coach to win the cup since Ivory Coast's Yeo Martial in 1992.

The Nigerian coach said he still didn't know whether he would put captain Yobo back in the starting lineup after benching him in the previous match.

John Obi Mikel (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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