2015 Cup of Nations Preview: Mali

By Salim Masoud Said

Introduction
Do Mali care that they have attained a reputation as purveyors of football from a bygone era? With four semi-finals appearances out of their last six appearances, stretching back to the 2002 edition, they probably don’t. Although qualification for this year’s tournament was somewhat cagey, they have shown no sign of deviating from their disruptive, scrappy style of play.

Losses at home to Ethiopia and away to Malawi, and the five goals conceded in those two losses, suggests Mali’s renowned rigidity is not as – pun intended – polished as it should be under Henryk Kasperczak. Still, an impressive final matchday win over table-topping Algeria was enough to see them qualify as Group B’s runners up.

Despite the impressive Afcon record over the last decade, Mali still amble into the tournament with few fancying their chances. As ever, the height at which the Eagles will soar largely hinges on the form of Seydou Keita, the emotional heartbeat of the team. One of the outstanding players at Afcon 2013, his timely goals and preternatural demeanour will be pivotal in a team that has shown little box-office quality in the last two tournaments.

Mali have dipped their hand into their diaspora to unearth some rough diamonds, making this team a tad more exciting proposition than the teams of yesteryear. In the in-form French-born duo of Abdoulaye Diaby and Wolverhampton Wanderer’s Bakary Sako, the tools to be adventurous are available should Kasperczak choose to do so.

But, even if they display their typically dour brand of football on Africa’s main canvas yet again, Les Aigles will be remorseless about their style if their substance is another appearance in the final four.

The Framework
Expect a 4-5-1 formation with a starting XI that compromises mostly of players standing at 6 foot and over. This is an obstructive, physically robust team that will commit plenty of fouls – even technically superior opposition will find it tough to establish a rhythm against them. Due to their size advantage, Mali’s danger is likely to come from set-pieces and crosses into the box. Keep an eye on the sudden and incessant sprints from left back Adama Tamboura down the flank, one of the distinct features of Mali’s attacking play.

Strengths
Togetherness – Though they lost three times during qualifying, Mali are generally hard to beat once conditioned into the tunnel-vision of knockout football. In the last two editions, they have had the mental fortitude to knock out hosts Gabon and South Africa out on penalties. Their third place finishes in the last two editions gives them invaluable experience at this level and, even when facing superior sides, they should not be overawed at this stage.

Weaknesses
Lack of invention – Seydou Keita aside, there are not enough tried and tested players in this Mali team who can conjure moments of brilliance. As impressive as their 3rd place finishes have been in the last 13 years, their failure to progress past that stage reflects the lack of genuine, game-winning quality in the team.

Key Player
Seydou Keita – A model of consistency and decorum at club and international levels, the modest Keita’s performances in the last two Cup of Nations have elevated him up there with Africa’s all-time greats. Calm, diligent and intelligent in possession, he inspires those around him and has the quality to come up with match-winning moments.

The Hipster Choice
Bakary Sako – The 26-year-old only pledged his allegiance to Mali last year, solving Mali’s long-term search for an orthodox winger, and has added some much-needed spontaneity into the attack. The 3 goals in 8 caps encapsulate his lethality in front of goal and, with his contract at Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers petering out, bigger clubs will be monitoring Sako closely.

The Coach
Henryk Kasperczak – A member of the Poland team which finished 3rd at the 1974 World Cup, the sexagenarian led a young Mali side to 3rd place when they hosted the tournament in 2002. Coaching in his fifth Cup of Nations, he should bring a wealth of wiliness to the role.

SFG Predicts
Group stage exit – Drawn in the tougher half of the draw, they will have to show far more versatility and quality in their game this time around if they are to complete a hat-trick of consecutive semi-final appearances.

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