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Football: African Nations Cup: Nigeria could be surprised by Senegal at fine value 5-2.

Byline: Ian Coyne

IAN COYNE

Senegal are as big as 5-2 to win today's first semi-final of the Nations Cup and the

Lions have played well enough in reaching the last four to suggest they can make Sunday's final at Nigeria's expense.

Teams from opposite halves of the draw meet for the first time today, but arguably Senegal have overcome the tougher hurdles to reach this stage and Nigeria could be made to pay for their relatively easy passage from Group A.

It always looked likely that only Mali could possibly challenge Nigeria for top-spot in the section. Liberia were too inexperienced at this level of competition and Algeria were missing key Europe-based players like Ali Benarbia of Manchester City.

And after winning the group, a team of Nigeria's experience would always be expected to beat Ghana's Black Stars in the quarters, especially as their opponents were without Bayern Munich defender Sammi Kuffour and fielded a young side aiming to gain experience for a more realistic assault in 2004.

Nigeria's Julius Aghahowa scored twice to rescue the Super Eagles when they trailed Senegal 1-0 with eight minutes to go in the quarter-finals in 2000, and they are still dependent on the Shakhtar Donetsk hitman's goals.

Kanu in particular has looked unassured in front of goal, wasting a number of chances before Garba Lawal eventually gave the Super

Eagles a 1-0 win over Ghana.

In stark contrast to their

opponents' comfortable route to today's game, Senegal were drawn in a difficult looking Group D along with four-times winners Egypt and twice

beaten finalists Tunisia.

Yet Bruno Metsu's side

qualified comfortably with seven points after scoring late winners against Egypt and Zambia in their first two games.

Composed Lens defender Ferdinand Coly has shone throughout the tournament, and, like Nigeria, Senegal are still to concede a goal.

The player touted to be their star, Lens striker El Hadji Diouf failed to score in the group stages, and doubts about Senegal's firepower led to them being tipped to be taken to extra-time by Congo in the previous round.

But the west Africans

answered any questions about their ability to find the net, with Diouf eventually getting on the scoresheet late on

after Alassane Diao had

headed them into a first-half lead.

Senegal's displays have hinted that the balance of power in African football could be shifting in their direction and they are good value to reach their first final.

Hosts Mali have also been impressive performers, but Cameroon should be that bit too strong for them in tonight's other semi.

Mali's Adama Coulibaly, who plays alongside Coly at Lens, has shown himself to be a defensive colossus, Seydou Keita is one of the most creative midfielders in the tournament and busy forwards Mamadou Bagayoko and Bassala Toure are capable of pouncing on any defensive slips by Cameroon centre-backs Rigobert Song and Raymond Kalla.

But Cameroon have exceptional talent in all departments, and under the disciplined influence of

Winfried Schafer the holders are unlikely to become frustrated if Mali try to defend deeply.

Egypt attempted to nullify the creativity of Marc-Vivien Foe and Salomon Olembe in Cameroon's midfield through blanket defence, but the champions simply waited for the Pharaohs to make the defensive slip which let in Patrick Mboma to establish himself as the top scorer in the competition with three goals.

Cameroon exude confidence in their position as the premier footballing power on the continent and though Mali should prove tougher opponents than anything they have faced so far, the Indomitable Lions are well backable at evens with Chandler and Surrey to end Mali's plucky run.

Cameroon's crusade to successfully defend the title they won two years ago looks unstoppable.

Recommendations

Senegal

3pts 5-2 (Chandler)

Cameroon

6pts evens (Chandler, Surrey)

To qualify - Stan James: 8-13 Nigeria, 6-5

Senegal; 7-4 Mali, 2-5 Cameroon.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 7, 2002
Words:639
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