Ivorians set up final clash against Zambia – Pictures & Video

Ivory Coast's Gervinho, left, attacks as Mali's Ousmane Berthe, right, chases during their African Cup of Nations semi final soccer match at the Stade de l'Amitie in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday Feb. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Cote d’Ivoire and Mali went head-to-head in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations semifinals, and it was the Elephants who emerged on top, winning 1-0 in Libreville on Wednesday.

Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba (L) is challenged by Mali's Cheick Fantamady Diarra during their African Nations Cup semi-final soccer match at the Stade De L'Amitie Stadium in Gabon's capital Libreville February 8, 2012. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi (GABON - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

A first-half goal from Arsenal star Gervinho was enough to decide the match in favor of the tournament favorites, and set up a clash with Zambia in Sunday’s final.

The early exchanges were marred by aggressive play and fouls from both sets of players, setting the tone for what would be a rough and physical encounter. The Elephants had a great chance to take the lead on five minutes as a cross from the right wing found the head of captain Didier Drogba, but his glancing effort bounced up and onto the post, saving the Malians some early blushes.

Drogba continued to be a thorn in Mali’s side, and a few minutes later his long range strike almost beat keeper Soumbeyla Diakite, who was fortunate to have the ball bounce off his face and out for a corner.

Ivory Coast Gervinho reacts after he scored a goal against Mali during their African Cup of Nations semi final soccer match at Stade de L'Amitie in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Cote d’Ivoire continued to pile on the pressure and in the 16th minute African Player of the Year Yaya Toure found space in the box and cracked a bullet at goal, but the ball hit the woodwork once again.

A few minutes later the Eagles had their first real threatening chance of the game, as the Malian attacking pair of Mustapha Yatabare and Cheick Diabate troubled the Ivorian defense. But keeper Boubacar Barry was able to control the situation and unleash a counterattack that led to Salomon Kalou’s surging run, which allowed him to round Diakite before hitting the side netting from a tight angle.

The early intensity began to calm down, but still the Elephants created a fair amount of attacking opportunities, including a 31st minute effort from Drogba, who shook off two defenders before shooting diagonally across the goal, but slightly wide of the target.

Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba, second right, greets Gervinho, top, with Cheick Tiote, left, and Didier Zokora after Gervinho scored a goal against Mali during their African Cup of Nations semi final soccer match at Stade de L'Amitie in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Cote d’Ivoire ended the first period in the best possible way, as Gervinho found the opener on the 45th minute. He collected the ball on the edge of his own half, showing incredible pace, skill and control to run half the length of the pitch before beating Diakite on his far post and slotting in the goal.

The second half began at a slower pace, with much of the action involving tackles in the midfield as both sides tried to maintain possession. In the 65th minute Cote d’Ivoire had a good chance to extend its lead with Kalou cracking a shot from just outside the box, but Diakite was equal to the strike, getting a hand up and tipping it over the bar.

In the 73rd minute Yatabare came close to equalising for the Eagles, but his powerful attempt rose above the intended target. Cote d’Ivoire’s defense did well to frustrate Mali on a few counterattacking occasions.

With three minutes remaining in the match Mali had a free kick from distance, but the Eagles were suffering the effects of a two-hour quarterfinal against Gabon, and the effort was easily blocked and cleared.

The Ivorians had lost four of six semifinal appearances at previous Afcon competitions before this match, but after a dominant display in this match they were able to improve that statistic, ending the match with a 1-0 victory.

The result sends Cote d’Ivoire into the final of the 2012 Afcon, where it will face Zambia on Sunday following the Chipolopolo’s 1-0 semifinal victory over Ghana in Wednesday’s earlier match. Mali will have the third place playoff to contend against the Black Stars on Saturday.

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