(Photo: Chris Ricco/Backpagepix)
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi believes he will have a distinct advantage when he prepares his side to meet Mali in the semi-finals of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Wednesday.
But this has been denied by his opposition as the war of words hots up ahead of what is an eagerly anticipated match-up in Durban.
Keshi was coach of the Mali side between 2008 and 2010 and not much has changed in the national set-up in that time, giving him extensive knowledge of the players.
“Ninety percent of their current players used to play for me when I was the head coach. So I know what to expect from them on Wednesday,” Keshi said.
“We are not thinking of the final now but the semi-final against Mali. My knowledge is an edge but that does not mean we are not going to work extra hard to be able to make it to the next round.”
Mali veteran midfielder Seydou Keita believes the past will have no bearing on Wednesday’s tie though and insists the Mali of 2013 has a very different style to the one that played under Keshi.
“People keep saying that Nigeria will beat us on Wednesday because their coach Stephen Keshi knows the in and out of the Mali team, having coached us in the past, but that is not true,” Keita said.
“We’ve had three coaches after Keshi’s departure and that should tell you a lot of transformation has taken place. Keshi, with all the respect I have for him, will meet a different team on Wednesday and not what he left behind. So tell him we have changed.”
One of the keys to the semi-final could be Nigerian forward Emmanuel Emenike, a player who went from the lower leagues of South Africa to the big time in Europe, playing in the UEFA Champions League.
How Mali deal with him will be telling, as well as how they handle Chelsea forward Victor Moses, who has begun to find his form after a slow start to the tournament.
History is also on Nigeria’s side: they have never lost to Mali in six previous meetings, winning three of those.
This will be the fourth time since 2002 the two teams have played at the Nations Cup finals, with Nigeria winning two of those.