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Hosts Mali face Nigeria showdown in Nations Cup

© Reuters 2002

By Mark Gleeson

BAMAKO, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Hosts Mali's interest in the African Nations Cup finals could be over on Thursday after they face Nigeria in their second group A match. A capacity crowd of some 60,000 is expected at the newly-built March 26 stadium for Mali's make-or-break encounter, which follows a disappointing draw in their opening match.

Mali snatched a late equaliser to share the spoils in a 1-1 draw with Liberia last Saturday and will go into their second group game as underdogs against Nigeria, who beat Algeria 1-0 on Monday in their opener. The home team need at least a point against the Super Eagles to stay in contention for a quarter-final place. Nigeria showed glimpses of their potential but also several defensive lapses in their win over Algeria. Julius Aghahowa scored the winner and his frontline partner Victor Agalim said he was confident of a further three points to clinch them a quarter-final place.

"If we can beat the Algerians, then I believe we can also beat Mali," said the striker, who plays for German club Schalke 04. But he admitted the defence was of some concern to the team, despite Algeria failing to profit from the opportunities presented to them by a static Nigerian backline.

"We discussed this after the game against Algeria and I don't think it is going to happen again," Agali said.

Mali showed potential going forward against Liberia, with Mamadou Bagayoko and Seydou Keita impressive and Dutch-based midfielder Mahamadou Diarra proving a quality competitor behind them. Keita got the 87th minute equaliser, which saw Mali avoid an embarrassing defeat at the start of a tournament in which the country has invested over $100 million.

Mali coach Henryk Kasperczak admitted his side had suffered from a little stage fright in their opener and feared there might be more of the same against Nigeria.

Another team through to the World Cup finals, South Africa, return to action on Thursday against Ghana, whose coach Fred Osman Duodu sent defender Samuel Osei Kuffour home on Tuesday for being a "disruptive influence". The group B match in Segou follows goalless draws for both Ghana and South Africa in the opening matches against Morocco and Burkina Faso respectively.

Kuffour, who is favourite to win the African Footballer of the Year award in April, has now left Mali, further weakening Ghana's fragile defence.

But South Africa will need to inprove their finishing to exploit any gaps left by the Ghanaians. Bafana Bafana were poor going forward against Burkina Faso last Sunday and are still battling against time to get captain Shaun Bartlett fit for the match.

Bartlett, who plays in England for Charlton Athletic, suffered a calf muscle strain and limped off after just 17 minutes of his team's first match but officials said they were hopeful he would be available for the Ghana game.

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