By Mark Gleeson
NELSPRUIT, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Ghana and Nigeria hope they are headed for a heavyweight clash in the African Nations Cup final but Mali and Burkina Faso could well emerge as the spoilers in Wednesday's semi-finals.
For the first time in Nations Cup history, all four semi-finalists are from the west African region and while Ghana and Nigeria have the pedigree, Mali appeared to have the most depth while Burkina Faso proved the surprise package.
Mali and Nigeria meet in the first semi-final in Durban on Wednesday, followed by the match between Burkina Faso and Ghana in Nelspruit later the same day.
Ghana are seeking to end more than three decades without success at the Nations Cup since their last tournament victory while Nigeria have only won twice before, the last time in 1994.
Both teams have admitted they are in a rebuilding phase, as inexperienced youngsters with bright futures dominate their selection as they seek to use the tournament in South Africa to aim for future success.
However, having progressed this far, both countries suddenly have a chance to fulfill potentials ahead of schedule and also restore reputations lost in recent times.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi is basking in the satisfaction of seeing his controversial selections pay off.
"Somehow, the Nigeria fans don't appreciate their players. But I know my team, I know their mentality. I know the boys I picked were right, I have confidence in them," he said.
Blocking the two heavyweights' passage to Sunday's final are two countries with far less resources but peaking on the back of talented crops of players.
Mali's charge is being led by 33-year-old Seydou Keita and augmented by a team full of players with European league experience, particularly Ligue 1.
They have proven to have a powerful midfield and in Mamadou Samassa, coach Patrice Carteron claims to have the best goalkeeper in the competition.
Samassa is likely to return from suspension to replace Soumbeyla Diakite, who was the hero of Saturday's penalty shootout win over hosts South Africa in the quarter-final.
Burkina Faso's progress has come on the back of keeping a clean sheet in their last five-odd hours of action, plus the strength of skipper Charles Kabore in midfield and Jonathan Pitroipa's wing play.
They have overcome the loss of key attacker Alain Traore to injury, but not before he had scored three times in the first two matches.
"I'm the happiest coach of this tournament now as all we worked on in training came to play," said Burkina Faso's Belgian coach Paul Put.
Burkina Faso only previously made the semi-finals when they hosted the tournament in 1998.
The losers in Wednesday's semi-finals play for the bronze medal in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)