For the first two and a half matches of their 2013 Africa Cup of Nations campaign, Nigeria were underperforming rather magnificently. That's turned around quickly, and the Super Eagles followed up their impressive quarterfinal win against the Ivory Coast with a demolition job on Mali in the next round, smashing their opponents 4-1 to advance to the final.
Nigeria were favourites to move on but it was actually Mali who began on the front foot. Vincent Enyeama's goal was put under heavy pressure early on, a spell lasting ten minutes before the Super Eagles were finally able to break out and bring the match under control.
But once they did, they were never going to relinquish it. Mali's back line looked dangerous to long passes over the top, and Brown Ideye's strike, saved by Mamadou Samassa at the far post, would have sent alarm bells ringing on the touchline. John Obi Mikel getting the time and space to send a thunderous half-volley just wide of the post minutes afterwards their second warning.
Mali would not get a third. Victor Moses took things into his own hands out on the right flank, turned Adama Tamboura inside out with a brilliant piece of skill, and, spotting the defence lose its cohesion, flashed a cross through the six-yard box. Samassa was stranded, leaving left back Elderson Echiejile free to race onto the ball and make it 1-0 with a neat diving header.
Nigeria weren't finished. Moses was heavily involved again five minutes later, making a phenomenal run and then picking out Emmanuel Emenike with a pass to match. The Spartak man's cross, aimed at Ideye, didn't look like it had a prayer of resulting in a goal, but somehow ended up bouncing in when both the striker and centre back Molla Wague lunged for the ball.
2-0 down after half an hour, Mali desperately needed to score the next goal. They didn't. Just before the break, Mohamed Sissoko was penalised for a borderline foul on Ideye, and although the free kick from Emenike was somewhere in the region of 'dire', the Mali wall split up and Sissoko was further penalised by seeing the ball bounce off his leg, wrong-footing Samassa and trundling mournfully into the back of the net.
Seydou Keita had a chance to claw that goal back at the start of the second half after some slack defending left him free on a cross ten yards from goal, but the former Barcelona midfielder could only direct his effort wide of Enyeama's left-hand post.
Despite Emenike's penchant for flamboyant tricks, there was plenty of football to be played yet, and not all of it would go Nigeria's way. Moses, who'd been the force behind the Super Eagles' first two goals, picked up what looked like a foot injury and was forced off for Ahmed Musa in the 53rd minute, and Emenike picked up a knock of his own as Musa was being readied on the touchline.
But any setbacks were minor in the face of Nigeria's procession. They managed to blow up Mali's defence yet again on the hour mark, with Mikel slipping in a brilliant throughball for Musa to run onto. The substitute, left one-on-one with Samassa, finished coolly under the goalkeeper to make it 4-0. It was nearly 5 shortly thereafter, but Musa's unorthodox strike after rounding the goalkeeper was ruled out for a borderline offside call on Ideye.
Mali still pushed forward, trying for a consolation goal, and it took a phenomenal save from Enyeama to keep out Mamadou Samassa (not the goalkeeper) when the Chievo striker found himself free in the box. Mali would grab some small shred of dignity when the Nigerian defence took a well-earned nap and allowed Cheick Diarra to latch onto a loose ball and make it 4-1.
There was no hope of a comeback. The Super Eagles looked just as likely to score as their rather less-super counterparts, and for Nigeria the only setback in the last few minutes of the match was a thigh injury picked up by Emenike as he tried to make it five, an injury which forced the Nigerians down to ten men for the three minutes of stoppage time.
He and Moses will have three days to rest before the final, where they'll be hoping to get fit in time to face whomever of Ghana and Burkina Faso -- probably Ghana -- makes it out of the second semifinal.