ACCRA: Nigeria bounced back from the brink to sneak into the African Nations Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday but the door to the last eight closed on Mali.
The two countries were scrapping for the honor of finishing runners-up to Ivory Coast in Group B and passage to the knockout stages, with the Nigerians prevailing.
Berti Vogts underachieving side set up a last eight date with Ghana by beating Benin 2-0 in Sekondi, with Mali crashing 3-0 to Ivory Coast in Accra.
Nigeria s win, after defeat to the Ivorians and a goalless draw against Mali, was largely down to the work of Chelsea midfielder Mikel John Obi, who scored their first and set up Yakubu Aiyegbeni for the second.
Obi s Stamford Bridge teammate Didier Drogba celebrated his 50th international cap by firing Ivory Coast into a ninth minute lead over the Malians, with Benfica s Marc Zoro and Boubacar Sanogo wrapping up an impressive win.
Ivory Coast s reward for a perfect nine points from the opening round is a quarter-final tie with Guinea, who will be without their suspended skipper Pascal Feindouno, in Sekondi on Sunday.
There was relief all round in the beleaguered Nigerian camp at avoiding a likely early trip back to Lagos.
We asked for something of a miracle and it happened, said Osaze Odemwingie. We are now up against the host team and if we want to progress in this competition, we will have to beat them as well.
We showed great mental strength and that is what we will need again on Sunday. Rule us out at your own risk, added Odemwingie, who after picking up a second booking against Benin will miss the game.
Obi said the win was down to some hard training, and lady luck.
We knew we had to win and then sweat it out (for Ivory Coast to beat Mali). We knew our fate rested on the Ivory Coast, and they won.
We showed a lot of aggression and determination tonight and we re very happy.
Asked if the side were prepared to take on a resurgent Ghana on home turf he replied: Hold on – we celebrated this win in the changing rooms, now we ll go back to the hotel, sleep well, and think about Ghana tomorrow.
It s going to be tough, but we ve got one of the best sides in the competition and we want to show that to the Ghanaians.
We gave a good account of ourselves but Nigeria were more determined to carry the day. We wish them the best of luck against Ghana on Sunday, said Benin striker Razak Omotoyossi, whose parents are Nigerians.
Down in Accra Drogba will have been relieved to have avoided a clash with another Chelsea star on view at the 2008 Nations Cup, Ghana s Michael Essien. But he wasn t taking the prospect of confronting Guinea lightly.
We ve qualified well but there s a hard quarter-final ahead for us. Guinea aren t there by accident.
Ivory Coast Coach Gerard Gili said the win over Mali would stand them in good stead, with a tough quarter-final coming up.
Thanks to the individuality and experience of some of the players we won well.
Mali coach Jean-Francois Jolar tipped Ivory Coast to go all the way. We lost to a strong and complete team; they have everything to win the title.
Explaining the non-appearance of Sevilla striker Fredi Kanoute for the second half he said: Unfortunately Fredi was injured, it was a big blow.
Another blow was Adama Coulibaly, who became ill.
I m very disappointed that we didn t play well in the first half, we didn t take risks in attack, we didn t manage to impose in midfield.
The pre-match focus had been all about whether the two west African neighbors might settle for a cosy draw to allow both to go through at Nigeria s expense, but as Jolar said: No one can say the game was rigged now!
Wednesday will see a further two teams secure their tickets to the quarter-finals, with Cameroon facing Group C basement dwellers Sudan knowing maximum points would guarantee a slot in the knockout phase unless third-placed Zambia stun leaders and defending champions Egypt.