8th February, 2012
A contender for the goal of the competition from Arsenal striker Gervinho against Mali in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday put Ivory Coast into the Africa Cup of Nations final.
Gervinho’s solo moment of brilliance deep into the first half gave the Elephants’ a 1-0 win and left them on a collision course with Zambia, shock winners over Ghana in the day’s other semi-final.
The pair will meet at Libreville’s L’Amitie stadium on Sunday.
For the Ivorians this will be their first appearance in the Nations Cup climax since they were beaten by Egypt in Cairo in 2006.
They are seeking their second continental title after a lone success 20 years ago.
Mali had struggled manfully to keep the orange tide at bay in a frenetic first half, until Gervinho made his mark with a little help from some slack defending.
Depriving Mali back Ousmane Berthe of the ball bang on the halfway line the Gunners star scampered hare-like down the left wing, leaving Malian pursuers in his wake to shoot right-footed past Soumaila Diakite and into the far corner.
The Eagles coach Alain Giresse pounded the dug out with his fist in frustration.
The Ivorians went into this semi-final looking to avoid the same fate as Ghana, the Black Stars having been knocked out by so-called minnows Zambia across the border in Bata earlier.
The hot favourites switched three from Saturday’s last eight win over Equatorial Guinea – Salomon Kalou, Cheik Tiote and PSG’s Siaka Tiene in for Arthur Boka, Kafoumba Coulibaly and Max Gradel.
Mali made two changes from the side that won Sunday’s stamina-sapping quarter-final against Gabon, with French-based forwards Cheick Tidiane Diabate and Moustapha Yattabare on for injured duo Abdou Traore and Modibo Maiga.
With Pele among the crowd at the three-quarters full 40,000-seater stadium Didier Drogba almost put the Elephants into a fifth minute lead when hitting the cross bar.
Berthe was booked seconds later and keeper Diakite had to look sharp to punch away the resulting freekick taken by the Ivorian skipper.
Ivory Coast could have been two up inside the opening quarter of an hour but Yaya Toure followed his captain’s lead by also hitting a bar, the right post this time, after being set up by Salomon Kalou.
Down at the other end Ivorian midfielder Jean-Jacques Gosso had his work cut out to stop Diabate’s charge in the box.
Drogba was then off target when he dragged his angled shot from the right after getting the better of his Mali markers Berthe and Drissa Diakite when he ran on to a long ball into the area.
In the last minute before the break Gervinho struck to put his team into a deserved lead.
Mali came out for the second half with an unenviable task – to become the first team at the tournament to score against Drogba and company.
But only Diakite’s fingernails prevented them falling further behind around the hour when the Mali keeper diverted Kalou’s shoot over the crossbar.
Yatabare had Mali’s best chance in the 72nd minute, his attempt from the right narrowly going over Boubacar Barry’s bar.
But the Ivorians held firm to march on while Mali made an honourable exit.
Earlier, in Bata, Zambia had edged out Ghana Black stars by a single goal.
Substitute Emmanuel Mayuka scored 12 minutes from time to give Zambia a shock 1-0 win over four-time champions Ghana.
The goal came against the run of play with Isaac Chansa setting up the 20-year-old striker, whose shot from outside the penalty area flew past goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey into the corner of the net.
Zambia now go to Libreville for an emotional showdown with Ivory Coast or Mali Sunday as it was off the Gabon coast that a plane carrying the 1993 squad plunged into the Atlantic killing all 25 players and officials on board.
“It was written in the stars that we had to return to Gabon in order to honour the memories of the national side wiped out in 1993,” said Zambia’s French coach Herve Renard.
“A team that is returning home and all of them die, is catastrophic for a country.
“Twelve million Zambians wanted us to go the whole way to Libreville. As soon as we arrive in Libreville, we will go to the spot where the plane crashed, not far from the stadium.
“It is imperative we play for them, for Zambia, because it is a fantastic country.”
Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic took defeat so badly he refused to appear at the press conference and it was left to his assistant Akwasi Appiah to assess the match.
“We dominated almost all the match, they had only one or two opportunities, and scored with one of them,” said Appiah.
“Zambia is a huge footballing nation, they deserve to be in the final.
“Everyone is very sad, the majority of the players cried.”
It will be the third final appearance by the Copper Bullets after losing to Zaire after a replay in 1974 and to Nigeria 20 years later with a team built within 12 months after the tragedy.
Midfielder Derek Boateng was sent off seven minutes from time after a second booking to leave Ghana battling on with 10 men in a tense finish as Zambia clung to the slender advantage.
It was a familiar scene at the 35,00-seat Estadio de Bata in this port city with row after row of empty red and blue seats, and many who did turn up raced to the back rows for shelter from heavy pre-match rain.
The Black Stars were favourites and the early exchanges backed that view with the four-time champions squandering a great chance to take an early lead when Asamoah Gyan failed to convert a penalty.
Awarded for a foul on Kwadwo Asamoah by Davies Nkausu, Gyan did not strike the spot kick with great power and Kennedy Mweene guessed correctly, dived to his left and pushed the ball away with his left hand.
Gyan, whose three goals were instrumental in Ghana reaching the 2010 final, was not at his sharpest and shot timidly at Mweene soon after when put through by Andre Ayew.
Jordan Ayew, younger brother of Andre and son of Ghana legendy Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, was another culprit when he broke free inside the box but failed to connect with a delicate chip over the defence.
With the Black Stars doing most of the pressing, scoring chances for the Copper Bullets were few and far between although captain Christopher Katongo should have done better than blaze wide when set up by Rainford Kalaba.
Renard had a change of mind at half-time regarding his lone striker and introduced Mayuka for James Chamanga, hoping the young Switzerland-based star could add to two goals early in the tournament.
But the goalmouth action continued to be largely at the end guarded by Mweene, who had to get down smartly when Jordan Ayew unleashed a low, close-range shot.
Ghana looked more likely to break the deadlock as the second half wore on and they suffered a blow when injury-prone captain John Mensah was forced to retire with Isaac Vorsah coming on.