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Mon 4 Feb 2008 07:43 AM

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Ten-man Ghana reach semi-finals

Ghana have stepped closer to a record-equalling fifth African Nations Cup title after beating Nigeria.

Ghana had one man sent-off but still moved a step closer to a record-equalling fifth African Nations Cup title with a thrilling 2-1 quarter-final success over Nigeria here on Sunday.

Yakubu Ayegbeni put Nigeria into the lead with a penalty only for Michael Essien to level just before the interval.

Ghana captain John Mensah was sent off midway through the second half but it didn't stop the Cup hosts as Nottingham Forest's Junior Agogo produced the late winner.

This was sweet revenge for the Black Stars as Nigeria had dumped them out of the 2002 African Nations Cup at the same stage.

"I'm so proud to be the Ghana coach, congratulations to them all," said the team's French coach Claude Le Roy who led Cameroon to the 1988 title."

"They were heroes to first come back from a goal down, then hold on and get the winner," he added before questioning the referee's decision to send off Mensah.

"I don't know whether John deserved the red card. The referee was very fast to send him off. This case was not clear cut."

Ghana's Portsmouth midfielder Sulley Muntari said the team had pulled together once their captain was out of the picture."When John was sent off we were all conscious of the responsibility on our shoulders. We couldn't lose this match."

"It was a great effort to beat Nigeria, who aren't a weak side, with a man down."

Nigeria coach Berti Vogts said his team could go home with their heads held high.

"I'm very disappointed, we paid dear for our mistakes," said the German.

"But I have a young team, they're not so experienced as Ghana who were in the last World Cup. My boys gave 100 percent today, we lose together, we win together."

Ghana, who are still on target to emulate Egypt and Tunisia who lifted the Cup in 2006 and 2004 on home turf, will now face the winner of Monday's quarter-final between Tunisia and Cameroon.

With Udinese striker Asamoah Gyan winning his race against time to be fit after a slight groin problem Le Roy fielded the same side that downed Morocco, with back-from-suspension Hearts midfielder Laryea Kingston on the bench.

Vogts was once again without skipper Nwankwo Kanu, the Portsmouth player and veteran of five Nations Cups forced to sit out his third straight match after picking up a knock in the opening game.

Given the bitter rivalry between the two sides, the tackles came thick and hard in hot and humid conditions.

With Ghana president John Kuffour amongst the raucous 45,000 capacity crowd Nigeria's Taye Taiwo picked up the first booking for dissent, with teammate Obinna Nwaneri the next to catch Algerian referee Mohamed Benouza's eye when hacking down Hans Sarpei.

Ghana were much the sharper for most of the first half, with Essien marshalling the midfield and proving a much more potent force than his Chelsea teammate John Obi Mikel for Nigeria.

Nigeria were dangerous on the few occasions they were allowed to venture into Ghana's half although the hosts defence led by Mensah coped manfully.

Ghana defender John Paintsil was instrumental in Nigeria taking the lead against the run of play when he fouled Uche in the 33rd minute.

Benouza pointed to the spot and Ayegbeni stepped up to fire low and left past Birmingham City keeper Richard Kingston.

This was the first time in the tournament that Ghana had fallen behind but it didn't take them long to restore parity, with Essien heading home Muntari's teaser into the box in first half injury time.

On the hour Ghana suffered a huge setback with Mensah sent off for a professional foul, clipping the heels of Lokomotiv Moscow striker Peter Odemwingie.

Le Roy then shuffled his pack, replacing the subdued attacker Gyan with Kingston in midfield.

Kingston's goalkeeper brother produced an acrobatic diving save to deny Tye Taiwo and shortly after Mikel was booked.

Agogo then got his just reward for some spirited charges at the Nigerian defence when he bagged Ghana's winner, firing home Muntari's low cross from four yards with seven minutes on the clock.

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