Mali’s exit at AFCON 2015, which was decided by the drawing of lots, was seen as the karmic payback for the bone-chilling football they have subjected viewers to since the turn of the decade.
They return this year with a coach that was the instigator of that AFCON stickability. Frenchman Alain Giresse, who guided them to a third place finish in 2012, is back in the hot seat. His team made light work of qualifying, brushing off Benin, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan with ease to finish unbeaten, recording five wins in the process.
What Giresse did have in 2012 that he doesn’t have know is a pivotal part of the jigsaw: Seydou Keita. And not just him – raiding left-back Adama Tamboura, crucial in 2012 and 2013, tumbled out of the team after a long period of being unattached.
What Giresse does have now that he didn’t have in 2012 is a quietly talented young generation that makes the Keita vacuum less painful. Just as Keita cemented his greatness with the timing of his actions, whether it was performances or interventions for Mali, the materialisation of a Mali U20 generation has been just as timely.
The U20 team matched Keita’s 1999 generation’s achievement of finishing third at the World Cup, and they did it playing sleek football which raised awareness that Malian football transcends overly physical lanky lads committing niggly fouls and fist-pumping with every agricultural clearance.
Giresse arrives into this tournament with his reputation as a pragmatic coach in tact, but he has sought to integrate those youngsters into the senior squad. Some of those young players have been formed in Bamako branch of the Jean-Marc Guillou (JMG) Academy. The school is the brainchild of Jean-Marc Guillou, the idiosyncratic coach credited with turning a generation of Ivory Coast footballers golden in the 1990s at ASEC Mimosas.
The brightest out of those U20 prospects is Adama Traore, who is seen as Seydou’s successor and is a JMG graduate. He played a starring role at the U20 World Cup, walking away with the illustrious Golden Shoe before moving to Monaco. Goalkeeper Djigui Diarra and Youssouf Kone were also part of the U20 squad in New Zealand and they could both play a part in Gabon. Giresse, despite his risk-averse reputation, has trusted them enough to start them from the off in some key games.
Giresse departed Senegal after they bowed out in the group stages at AFCON 2015. For him to return to Mali is a step back, whichever way you look at it. But it is to Mali’s benefit, as they have a coach at the helm that works best as an underdog and, having seen the grass is not that greener on the other side, may even stick around this time if positive results are forthcoming.
Tactically, this side aren’t too different to Mali sides from the recent past. Alain Giresse’s team set up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation depending on how ambitious they need to be. If he opts for the former Adama Traore will probably start as an attacking midfielder; if he opts for 4-4-2 Moussa Marega is likely to be partnered in attack by the tireless Mustapha Yatabare. Sambou Yatabare, brother of Mustapha, is equally tireless and should start on the ring wing. Crystal Palace’s Bakary Sako or the tricky Moussa Doumbia, a JMG graduate, will give Mali a different edge from the left. Because of their height and good headerers of the ball in their team, they are a threat from set pieces.
Resolute centre-back partnership – You don’t have to be exceptional individual players to make a solid defensive partnership, and that’s what Salif Coulibaly and Molla Wague have been proving for Mali over the last two years. Watching the two of them defend is not a spectatorial delight but they don’t make basic errors and they don’t leave themselves exposed. Though they’re underwhelming on paper it usually takes something special to break them down.
Strikeforce issues – Top scorer in qualifying Abdoulay DIaby didn’t make the squad, nor did the mercurial Modibo Maiga, while Mustapha Yatabare is better known for the amount of ground he covers rather than the goals he scores. The muscle-bound Moussa Marega is having a very good season with Vitoria Guimaraes and could be the panacea, but he has yet to truly take off for Mali.
Salif Coulibaly – One of the leading centre-backs in Africa, the TP Mazembe star understands one of the adages of defending as well as anyone: simple is safe. He will be Giresse’s most trusted player on the pitch and he’ll need to make sure Mali maintain their typical defensive integrity – there are some new faces in the defence making their tournament debuts, including, probably, the callow goalkeeper Djigui Diarra.
The Hipster’s Choice
Moussa Marega – The Mali striker’s spot has been for anyone’s taking since the retirement of Fredi Kanoute, and Marega looks a better fit than the previous occupants in the position ever did. He has the mixture of pace, strength and, currently, form (10 in 12 this season, second in the goal-scoring charts in Portugal) to lead the line on his own and solve a long-term problem. He has led the line well for Mali in recent outings – his team just need to provide him with the adequate supply.
Alain Giresse – The Frenchman has built a good reputation for his body work since his move to Africa, which started a 2-year stint with FAR Rabat in Morocco in 2001 and has included good tenures with Gabon and Mali. A glorious midfielder for France in his playing days, his teams aren’t quite as free-flowing as the 1980s Les Bleus midfield four of Fernandez, Giresse, Tigana and Platini to say the least.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- The Eagles had a rather pedestrian 2016 with 4 wins across 7 matches.
- Facing a tough draw with Ghana (WGF 53) and Egypt (WGF 58), Mali is winless in their last 6 against WGF top 60, and only 4 wins from their last 17 against WGF top 60 dating back to 2012.
- We give Mali about a 40% chance of advancing from the group, but their fate could be sealed before getting to play Uganda on Matchday 3.
- Mali has been a mainstay at recent AFCONs, making their 6th consecutive appearance.
- Getting out of the group will be a big achievement for the Eagles. Anything further would be lofty aspirations. Odds of becoming champions for the first time are about 50 to 1.
Group Stage exit – Ghana’s form will make the teams in Group D feel this is a group for the taking, but it’s difficult to back Mali with their lack of potency in front of goal.