Africa Cup of Nations 2013: Most Important Players in AFCON Semifinals

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2013

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 02:  (L-R) Fousseni Diawara, Molla Wague, Samba Sow, Seydou Keita  and Sigamary Diarra of Mali celebrate  during the 2013 African Cup of Nations Quarter Final 2 match between South Afica and Mali from Moses Mabhida Stadium on February 02, 2013 in Durban, South Africa.  (Photo by Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Gallo Images/Getty Images

Four countries remain in pursuit of the Africa Cup of Nations title. On Wednesday, that number will get trimmed to two after the semifinal matches, which feature Nigeria against Mali and new tournament favorite Ghana taking on Burkina Faso.

The Black Stars took over that distinction after the Ivory Coast was eliminated by Nigeria in the quarterfinals. That said, it's been a tightly-contested tournament throughout, leaving very little margin for error for the top nations.

That won't change in the semifinals. Let's examine one player from each country that will have to shine if he is going to help his squad reach the AFCON championship match.


Nigeria: John Obi Mikel

Most of the focus has been placed on Nigeria's attacking duo of Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses, who have combined to score five goals. But the Super Eagles are winning matches thanks to strong play in the midfield, led by Mikel.

The Chelsea star is pairing with Sunday Mba and Ogenyi Onazi to control the middle of the pitch for Nigeria. Mikel, who's made over 40 international appearances, has taken on a leadership role in the midfield and is a driving force behind the team's success.

It's hard the imagine the Super Eagles making many changes to a game plan that allowed them to defeat the Ivory Coast. Expect Mikel to take on a central role moving forward, which will continue to open space for the likes of Emenike and Moses.


Mali: Seydou Keita

No surprise here. Keita, who scored Mali's only goal in a victory over South Africa, must maintain his current run of form for the Eagles to have a chance against Nigeria. His 78 appearances for the team are 14 more than any other player on the roster.

The former Barcelona isn't the dynamic option he was during his prime, but he's proven throughout the event that he can still wreak havoc in the attacking third. There's no question that the offensive approach still runs through him.

Nigeria features more attacking options than South Africa did in the last round. Mali will have to respond to that with more offense of its own in order to keep pace. That means Keita is going to be a busy man on Wednesday.


Ghana: Asamoah Gyan

Although Gyan has only found the net once during the tournament, he's still the player the Burkina Faso should be worried most about. The veteran striker is the team's most accomplished scorer with 31 goals in 68 appearances.

The key for Ghana is getting him a lot of touches early. When he's involved, he's dangerous. But far too often the team has allowed him to become invisible for extended stretches by not getting him in the mix early enough.

Facing Burkina Faso will be a trickier test than it appears on paper. So it's important that the Black Stars take control of the match early and play it at their pace. Getting the ball to Gyan in dangerous positions and letting him go to work will ensure that happens.


Burkina Faso: Bakary Kone

Burkina Faso reached the semifinals thanks to a string of terrific defensive performances. The unheralded squad has allowed just one goal in four matches, and that came against fellow final four country Nigeria in the opener.

The underrated back line is led by Kone, who's combined with Paul Koulibaly to create a virtual wall around the box for the Stallions. The low-scoring tournament has played right into their hands and gives them a realistic shot at reaching the final.

Kone's biggest task against the Black Stars will be making sure Gyan remains off the score sheet. As mentioned above, he's the engine that makes their offense run and if Burkina Faso can keep him under control its chances of winning improve greatly.