Ivory Coast edges Mali to reach final

Ivory Coast will play Zambia in the final of the African Cup of Nations after Gervinho’s goal on the stroke of halftime ensured the title favorite edged out Mali 1-0 on Wednesday.

The Arsenal forward capitalized on a defensive error at Stade de l’Amitie to race half the length of the pitch and shoot past goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite, sending the Ivorians to their second final in six years and giving them a chance at a first African title in 20 years.

Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure both hit the post as Ivory Coast dominated a stubborn Mali for most of the semifinal but couldn’t give itself some breathing space.

The Ivorians still reached the deciding game with five straight wins and without conceding a single goal at the tournament. They are now in touching distance of the Cup of Nations triumph that would befit their star-studded squad.

”We suffered a bit of nerves,” Ivory Coast coach Francois Zahoui said. ”There were signs of stress and I showed signs of stress, but it worked out.

”We came here with a lot of expectation and pressure. With the failures we’ve had in the past, we understand we haven’t won it yet.”

Zambia advanced to Sunday’s decider after surprising Ghana 1-0 in the first semifinal at Estadio de Bata. The team is now probably every neutral’s choice to win the tournament on its return to Libreville 19 years after a tragic plane crash in the Gabonese capital robbed the country of one of its best-ever teams.

”There will be a lot of emotions on both sides,” Zahoui said.

In Libreville, Gervinho led the celebrations at fulltime as Ivory Coast’s relieved players ran across to dance and applaud in front of their orange-clad fans, who had been outnumbered by Mali’s following.

The West African country’s only previous Cup of Nations title came in 1992, when it beat Ghana in a marathon penalty shootout.

At Stade de l’Amitie, which will stage the final, Gervinho finally made Ivory Coast’s first-half dominance count in the 45th minute when he flicked the ball past defender Ousmane Berthe on the halfway line, sprinted down the left wing unchallenged, cut in on goal and sent a right-footed shot into the far corner.

Mali’s defensive slip, as Berthe rushed up on the Arsenal forward and was beaten and with Cedric Kante giving him too much space, caused a furious reaction from coach Alain Giresse.

Mali’s coach slapped his hand against the team dugout in frustration as Ivorian players congratulated Gervinho going down the tunnel at halftime.

The Malians finally ran out of gas after showing great resilience to lift themselves from a group-stage defeat to Ghana and then come from behind against co-host Gabon to win a penalty shootout in the quarters.

”We can be proud of the team,” Giresse said. ”We almost succeeded; we weren’t far from succeeding.”

Drogba gave the Malians an early warning when he glanced a downward header off the back of his head that came off the post in the sixth minute.

Toure slammed a shot off the other post from close range after surging from midfield and receiving a pass from Salomon Kalou on the right wing.

Gervinho sent a header over the crossbar in the 18th, as Africa’s top-ranked team went close with nearly every attack.

Behind to Gervinho’s opportunist strike, and with Ivory Coast in control, Mali rallied for Mustapha Yatabare to shoot just over in the 73rd with goalkeeper Boubacar Barry stretching.

But it was the best of few Mali openings in the second 45 as Ivory Coast tightened its grip.

Drogba broke clear again down the right wing in the 77th and held off Kante to hit an angled shot that Diakite half-blocked, and Mali’s defense scrambled the ball away from in front of goal.

Lineups:

Ivory Coast: Boubacar Barry, Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora, Jean-Jacques Gosso, Salomon Kalou (Kader Keita, 79), Cheick Tiote, Gervinho, Didier Drogba, Siaka Tiene, Yaya Toure (Didier Ya Konan, 90), Souleman Bamba.

Mali: Soumaila Diakite, Adama Tamboura, Ousmane Berthe, Cedric Kante, Mustapha Yatabare (Garra Dembele, 73), Cheick Diabate, Seydou Keita, Drissa Diakite (Ousmane Coulibaly, 46), Bakaye Traore, Samba Sow (Mahamane Traore, 84), Samba Diakite.