Nigeria book a spot in Afcon final
"We knew Mali were a very good team, but we also knew they were a little bit slow, so we took advantage of that, playing the ball quickly on the ground," Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said after the game.
Elderson Echiejile, Brown Ideye and Emmanuel Emenike were all on target in a riveting first 45 minutes, and Ahmed Musa scored on the hour mark to stretch the advantage.
Mali eventually replied through Cheick Fantamady with 15 minutes left, but it proved little more than a consolation effort as they bowed out without putting up much of a fight against a Super Eagles side full of energy and pace. "I'm proud of the players because we worked hard to get here," said Mali coach Patrice Carteron.
"It was unfortunate what happened tonight but we were beaten by a very confident and mobile Nigeria team."
The Malians, massive underdogs for the last four encounter, had the first chance in the seventh minute when Molla Wague put his header just over from Mahamane Traore's corner kick.
Shortly after, Metz midfielder Traore was at the end of another good corner, this time by Mohamed Traore, which he glanced wide.
Mohamed Sissoko then saw his shot from just outside the area rise centimetres above the cross bar as the men in yellow held the early initiative.
Nigeria finally burst into life in the 15th minute when a slip by Mahamadou N'Diaye allowed Ideye to latch on comfortably to a long ball on the right side of the box, but Mamadou Samassa blocked the shot with his feet and the rebound was just out of reach for Emenike.
The goalmouth action continued in the 21st minute as a last-ditch N'Diaye tackle stopped competition top-scorer Emenike in his tracks, as the trigger was about to be pulled, before John Obi Mikel volleyed a loose ball from the resulting corner metres past the right upright from just outside the box.
But there was no stopping the Super Eagles from taking the lead in the 25th minute after Victor Moses turned his man inside out on the right and crossed behind the surprised defence for Echiejile to head in.
Four minutes later Emenike burst down the right and crossed to the feet of Ideye, running towards the near post, who turned the ball in via a deflection.
Mali were clearly stunned, under relentless pressure, with Ukraine-based Ideye then forcing Samassa to drop down to his left to save a powerful strike.
Ogenyi Onazi was next to come close after he attempted to chip Samassa following another energetic counter-attack, although the giant goalkeeper had backtracked enough to hold on to the ball.
Keshi's side capped a remarkable opening period when Emenike's powerful 44th minute free-kick took a wicked deflection off Sissoko to leave Samassa wrong-footed and Nigeria with a handsome 3-0 lead. It was Emenike's fourth goal of the tournament.
Mali captain Seydou Keita, one of the stars of the competition, should have cut the deficit straight after the interval but somehow guided the ball wide of the target after being picked out in acres of space by Fousseni Diawara. The urgency continued from Mali, with Wague looping his header over.
However, the Eagles were prone to being caught on the break, and when Adama Tamboura lost possession going forward, Musa put them 4-0 up and out of sight.
Mikel's disguised through ball to the substitute forward allowed him to race in on goal and send the ball between the legs of Samassa.
With 20 minutes remaining, Mahamadou Samassa finally forced a first save of the match from Vincent Enyeama, although he should have done better with only the goalkeeper to beat from close range.
Mali then pulled one back in the 75th minute when Cheick Diabate tricked his way down the left and cut back for replacement Fantamady to bury the ball in the back of the net.
Both players had late chances, which they failed to take as Nigeria booked their ticket in Sunday's final in Johannesburg.
"I dedicate this victory to ... all Nigerians because Nigerians have missed out on finals for many years now," said Keshi, bidding to become only the second man to win the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) title as a player and coach.
"So this was my goal – to put a smile on Nigerian faces – and I'm glad I did that."
It is the seventh time the Super Eagles will compete in the finale of the continental tournament. They have won the competition twice previously, in 1980 and 1994. – Sapa