Words by Matt Carter
Little over a year ago Ethiopia were within a playoff of an unprecedented World Cup bow, having six months earlier graced an Africa Cup of Nations tournament for the first time in 31 years.
Repeating that momentous accomplishment always signified an arduous assignment considering the departure of influential coach Sewnet Bishaw combined with a taxing group draw. Nonetheless, few would have envisaged the Wallias to be on the brink of elimination at the group’s halfway point – defeat in Mali would miserably end their qualification aspirations.
Stepping into Bishaw’s substantial shoes, Mariano Barreto is already under substantial pressure. Defeat to Mali in Saturday’s reverse fixture met with considerable distain by a typically passionate Addis Ababa crowd.
Once more Ethiopia were plagued by an inability to make possession count, whilst questionable goalkeeping and defensive lapses again were a factor in the 2-0 defeat which leaves Ethiopia spiraling towards the exit door.
By contrast, victory in Bamako would virtually guarantee a fifth AFCON showing on the bounce for a Mali side who have thus far been typically robust. A late Carl Medjani strike in Algeria the only goal they have conceded through qualification to date.
In Addis Ababa, the Ethiopians struggled to handle the physicality of the Eagles and accounting for Mali’s intimidating record in Bamako – their last defeat coming back in 2005 – the odds appear stacked against Barreto reversing that deficiency on Wednesday night.
A disappointing World Cup qualification showing had raised questions over whether a decline was imminent for the side who clinched third spot at both the 2012 and 2013 AFCONs. But with Seydou Keita continuing to disparage his ailing years, Mali have thus far made light of what had been perceived as a banana skin group
The Eagles would be advised to steer clear of slipping up against a vulnerable Ethiopians given their last two fixtures take the form of an uncomfortable trip to Blantyre followed by a date with Algeria – widely regarded as the continent’s best side.
Perhaps Mali are no longer the intimidating proposition of years gone by, nevertheless their robust approach should again grind down a side at the bottom end of their confidence pool.