|One to watch: A key battle in the semi-final will be between Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, above, and Barcelona defender Seydou Keita, with both players pivotal to their teams’ fortunes [AFP]|
Mali will have to defy history if they are to overcome the mighty Ivory Coast in Wednesday’s Africa Cup of Nations semi-final.
The Ivorians have met Mali 21 times, winning 14 with the Eagles emerging victorious just the once, in a friendly back in 1995.
Twice their paths have crossed in the Nations Cup, with the Elephants prevailing 3-0 in the first round in Ghana in 2008 and 3-1 in the quarter-finals in 1994.
Yet Mali’s Seydou Keita, following the Henry Ford approach about history being ‘bunk’, dismissed the significance of the lopsided statistics, the Barcelona star saying: “The past? In football the past doesn’t count for anything.”
Keita’s return to the national team after a 20 month hiatus has proved instrumental in Mali’s progress at the 2012 Cup.
He converted the decisive spot kick in Mali’s 5-4 penalty shoot out defeat of co-hosts Gabon in Sunday’s quarter-final which had ended 1-1 after extra time.
The 32-year-old veteran, reflecting on the Eagles’ presence in the last four, commented: “We deserve our qualification. Everything isn’t perfect, we’re not Barcelona nor Brazil but we’re in the semi-finals and we’ll play to our strengths.
“We have nothing to lose.”
Mali, after escaping from the first round as group runners-up to Ghana, know only too well they will have to raise their game to a higher level to topple the competition favourites.
Didier Drogba and company left their plush Equatorial Guinea base in Malabo to fly to the Gabonese capital Libreville on Sunday with a perfect four wins out of four.
The Ivorians’ results make seductive reading – eight goals to none conceded.
Coach Francois Zahoui has injected a newfound pragmatism in a side that for so many years has flattered to deceive, earning the unwanted tag of ‘chokers’.
Zahoui has come to this Nations Cup with the sole objective of claiming the title with the Jose Mourinho-style philosophy of the results justifying the means.
A style of play based on efficiency and economy has replaced the brilliance of before, and it has led them to within 90 minutes of the final.
|Undisputed favourites Ivory coast have met Mali 21 times winning on 14 occasions [AFP]|
Zahoui expressed satisfaction in seeing his side develop since their arrival.
“I’m extremely happy with the spirit of this team which moves forward and makes progress from match to match. we’ve got a side of mature players.”
Drogba, who missed a penalty then scored in the 3-0 quarter-final defeat of Equatorial Guinea on Saturday, commented: “In 2008 (Egypt beat them 4-1 in the semi-finals) we were dazzling, scoring lots of goals but we didn’t manage to get to the final.
“In 2006 we were in the final and we lost. Here, we are showing character.”
His Premier League colleague, Yaya Toure, added: “We know that defensively we have to be strong because offensively we have nothing to fear as we have super strikers.”
“We have two ‘finals’ to play, it’s going to be really tough but inch’allah we’ll make it,” the Manchester City midfielder added.
“We want to do something for our people. We want to reach the final and bring the Cup back to our country.
“We must remain concentrated, but we’re ready both physically and mentally.
“Each morning when I wake up I see the Cup, I think of nothing else.”