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By Mike Collett
JOHANNESBURG, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Nigeria are one win away from ending a 19-year wait to reclaim the African Nations Cup but the favourites are wary of the threat posed by surprise finalists Burkina Faso in Sunday's showdown at Soccer City.
When they drew 1-1 in their opening Group C match 18 days ago there was little to indicate that the two west African nations would meet again in the final.
However, both teams have shown grit, determination and a winning mentality that promises an excellent finale to the three-week long tournament in front of a sell-out crowd.
Nigeria appear to hold most of the keys to success having no real injury worries apart from some concerns over forward Victor Moses who has been outstanding but picked up another niggling problem in Wednesday's 4-1 defeat of Mali in the semi-final.
In contrast, Burkina Faso will have to do without Alain Traore, who scored three goals at the start of the tournament but has missed out on the knockout rounds because of injury.
They might also be missing defender Mohamed Koffi who went off injured in the 3-2 penalty shootout victory over Ghana in their semi-final on Wednesday.
Burkina Faso also look as if they will have to cope without one of their most effective and important players, Jonathan Pitroipa, who was sent off after being shown two yellow cards by Tunisian referee Slim Jdidi against Ghana.
However, Jdidi was suspended by Confederation of African Football (CAF) officials on Thursday because of his poor performance and if an appeal against the dismissal from Burkina Faso is successful, Pitroipa will be reprieved and will play.
The two teams, who both like to go forward quickly and play to their attacking strengths, have reached the final in contrasting style with Nigeria in impressive form to beat favourites Ivory Coast 2-1 in the quarter-finals before producing an even better performance to rout Mali in the semis.
Burkina Faso had to battle to a 1-0 extra-time victory over Togo in their quarter-final and then played for another two hours without breaking the deadlock against Ghana in a match that finished 1-1 and went their way on penalties.
Their never-say-die spirit and determination could test Nigeria to the full on Sunday if the Stallions defence can keep at bay a Super Eagles attack which was rampant against Mali, hitting three goals in a 20-minute first half blitz.
Koffi has been impressive at the back for Burkina Faso along with Paul Koulibaly and Bakary Kone but Nigeria are a handful going forward with Moses and John Obi Mikel, team mates at European champions Chelsea, showing their class in midfield.
Up front Emmanuel Emnenike, with three goals, has been dangerous and scored against the Burkinabe in their opener.
The key to success on Sunday could even be decided before the match starts because if Pitroipa or Moses are missing, the balance could tip in favour of the opposition.
If both are ruled out, Nigeria would seem to have the greater strength in depth.
However, Burkina Faso possess an astonishing team spirit and determination personified by the indefatigable Aristides Bance, one of the stand-out players at the tournament, and not just because of his unique dyed-blond hairstyle.
The powerfully-built forward, who plays in Germany for FC Augsburg, had some indifferent early games but never stopped running, working and shooting against Ghana.
He had eight goal attempts, saw a header and a crisp close-range shot saved on the line and took the most audacious penalty in the shootout when he calmly dummied goalkeeper Fatau Dauda and then raised his hands and smiled in mock-belief as if to say, "How did I just do that?"
If he is on that sort of form again, the Nigeria defence will have a real battle on their hands.
Oddly, both sides are likely to be without their captains who have slipped out of contention during the tournament.
Burkina Faso skipper Moumouni Dagano lost his place following some indifferent form while Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo was injured and coach Stephen Keshi was not prepared to change a winning side even when he returned to full fitness.
The match is also naturally highly significant for the two coaches, who could hardly be cut from more different cloth.
Burkina Faso coach, Belgian Paul Put, is seeking something of a personal redemption after he was banned for life in Belgium after being involved in a match-fixing scandal in 2007.
His opposite number Keshi will write his name in the record books if he leads Nigeria to a third African title.
Keshi captained the Super Eagles to their last title in 1994 and could become only the second man in the 56-year history of the tournament to win it as player and coach. (Reporting by Mike Collett; Editing by Ken Ferris)