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By Mike Collett
JOHANNESBURG, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Burkina Faso coach Paul Put, whose team face Nigeria in their first appearance in an African Nations Cup final, says he is relishing their role as underdogs against one of the continent's footballing powerhouses.
While Nigeria are taking part in their seventh final and bidding to become African champions for the third time, the Burkinabe - who began the tournanment as outsiders and without a win in the competition since 1998 - have defied the odds to reach Sunday's showdown in front of an expected crowd of 90,000 at Soccer City.
"We are looking forward to facing one of the biggest footballing nations in Africa with so many top players in their team," the 56-year-old Belgian told reporters at his pre-match briefing on Saturday.
"We are the underdogs, so for us it is already a victory to be in the final, and anything can happen in football, as we know."
Burkina Faso began their surprising run with a 1-1 draw against Nigeria in their opening group match in Nelspruit nearly three weeks ago, before another draw with outgoing champions Zambia and that long-awaited African Nations Cup win, over Ethiopia, put them in the last eight. Victories over Togo and Ghana followed to take them to the final.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said at his pre-match briefing that having played each other already was beneficial to his preparations for the final, but Put said the two games could not be compared.
"I think we have to be honest," he said. "We have seen a big progression in the Nigeria team since that first game, but also our team as well has improved. I think we have matured since that first game - but the final will still be very tough. The two games won't have much in common."
One bonus for Put and his squad was the decision taken on Friday by officials from CAF, the Confederation of African Football, to overturn the red card shown to Jonathan Pitroipa in the semi-final against Ghana, clearing the way for the winger to take his place in the final.
Earlier, Keshi said he welcomed CAF's decision to rescind the red card - after referee Slim Jdidi admitted he mistakenly gave Pitroipa a second yellow against Ghana - and Put said he was delighted as well.
"Naturally we were very happy that CAF made that decision," he said. "It's great for the squad and it's good for the spectators to see the best players in the final - and it's right that he should play, as he did nothhing wrong."
Last year Zambia defied the odds to beat Ivory Coast in the final and win their first African title, and Put was not discounting his own team's chances of emulating Zambia's surprise triumph.
"We have worked very hard, I trust this group," he said. "They are very comfortable with the system we play and we have got some very good players who have demonstrated the will and the spirit to win. Nigeria are the favourites, but they have not won the title yet."
(Editing by Stephen Wood)