Milutinovic hovers as unfancied nations look to semi-final

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The Independent Football

Having fallen out with Emmanuel Adebayor, his team's one genuine star, and presided over three dismal performances, Stephen Keshi of Togo is perhaps the most at risk from Milutinovic's efforts to publicise his availability, but Michel was looking distinctly vulnerable until Ivory Coast's marathon penalty shoot-out victory over Cameroon in Saturday's quarter-final. Defeat to Nigeria in this afternoon's semi may yet have him glancing nervously over his shoulder.

Cameroon twice beat the Elephants in World Cup qualifying; a third defeat, it was widely perceived, would have brought the end for Michel. Keeping the French- man in a job might be the most tangible side-effect of Samuel Eto'o's failure from the spot, but the miss also had a wider symbolic implication: had Cameroon won, all five of the sides who will represent Africa at the World Cup in the summer would have exited the Nations Cup before the semi-finals.

That could only have added credence to El-Hadji Diouf's claim that "the wrong teams" will be in Germany. "We got the impression that people were questioning our qualification for the World Cup," Michel said. "I am proud and happy to have proved them wrong by reaching the semi-final."

Ivory Coast have been gritty rather than spectacular, as Kolo Touré admits. "We have maybe not yet played our best," he said, "but I think it is coming." The Arsenal defender has been in fine form personally, but he was quick to acknowledge the contribution of Didier Drogba.

The Chelsea striker evidently revels in his role as leader, and showed admirable sang-froid to despatch two penalties in the shoot-out victory over Cameroon. "Drogba is something special," Touré added.

Drogba will again be partnered this afternoon by Arouna Koné after Aruna Dindane - who missed the start of the tournament following the death of his five-month-old daughter - returned to Lens for treatment on a calf injury.

It may be that it is the need felt by Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon to reassert their authority that has made this the most engaging Nations Cup of recent times (although the quality of the pitches helps). "We want to compensate for missing the World Cup," said Nigeria's coach Augustine Eguavoen. "We have paid back Tunisia, and we want to do the same to Ivory Coast."

Even if they do not, though, Nigeria can take a huge positive from the tournament in the emergence of John Obi Mikel, a central midfielder of such ability and presence that the absence of Jay-Jay Okocha with a groin injury has hardly been noticed. Okocha takes evident delight from Mikel's impact, but it would be cruel on one of the greatest African players if he were not even to make it onto the pitch in his final tournament.

Groin strains are even more of an issue on the other semi-final, in which Senegal face the neurotic passion of 75,000 Egyptians in the Cairo International Stadium. The fuss in England over David Beckham's metatarsal four years ago seems small in comparison with Egyptian fascination with Mido's groin, but the Tottenham forward now seems set to play at least some part this evening. If the Pharaohs' best player of the 21st century is ruled out, they can at least turn to their best of the 20th - Hossam Hassan. "He was one of my idols growing up," said Diouf; with 167 games to his credit, he may well have been one of Tutenkamun's.

It was Diouf, himself a slight doubt with a groin problem, who ignited the debate about the quality of the World Cup qualifiers in the first week of the tournament, only for Senegal to undermine his argument by losing two of their group games. "Against Guinea, you could see the team has moved up a level," their coach Abdoulaye Faye said. "In front of their own fans Egypt are favourites, but we are not afraid of the atmosphere."

Should Ivory Coast set up a final against the hosts, Michel may reflect, the cacophony would at least drown out the death-chuckle of Milutinovic.

Premiership semi-finalists

* EGYPT Mido (Tottenham) striker

* IVORY COAST

E Eboué (Arsenal) defender

K Touré (Arsenal) defender

D Drogba (Chelsea) striker

* SENEGAL

P Diop (Fulham) midfielder

A Faye (Bolton) midfielder

A Faye (Newc'sle) midfield

H Camara (Wigan) striker

E Diouf (Bolton) striker

D Kamara (WBA) striker

* NIGERIA

J Yobo (Everton) defender

J Okocha (Bolton) midfield

N Kanu (WBA) striker

* TODAY'S SEMI-FINALS

Ivory Coast v Nigeria

(Alexandria, KO 1300, BBC3)

Egypt v Senegal

(Cairo, KO 1700, BBC3)

The Big Five Stars of the African Nations' Cup

* John Obi Mikel (Nigeria and Lyn, Norway)

The 18-year-old has more than lived up to the hype. He'd registered an assist and a goal within six minutes of his international debut against Zimbabwe, and ran the game against Tunisia.

* Mohamed Abou Terika (Egypt and Ahly, Egypt)

The darting playmaker in Egypt's 3-4-1-2 formation. A figure of real elegance and class, he scored and was man of the match in the 3-1 win over Ivory Coast.

* Arouna Kone (Ivory Coast and PSV)

The peroxide-cropped striker has been arguably the revelation of the tournament, impressing with the intelligence of his movement and his strength on the turn. Led the line superbly against Egypt.

* Pape Bouba Diop (Senegal and Fulham)

In an inconsistent side, he has been a colossus. Huge, imposing and magnificently committed, if Senegal are to upset Egypt, it will be because he has subdued Abou Terika.

* Biscotte Mbala Mbuta (Congo and Yverdon, Swit)

The diminutive 20-year-old almost prompted an unlikely fight-back against Egypt; if he had scored rather than hitting the bar after dribbling past five players, it would have been one of the great goals.

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