When Mauritania scored a late winner away to a poor Botswana in their first match of qualification it was assumed that they wouldn’t go on and actually qualify for their first AFCON.
That’s because Mauritania are an unremarkable side on paper. Looking through their squad, even the most ardent of African football watchers would struggle to identify more than a handful – if that.
But this was a qualification of the collective. As a unit Mauritania performed well, doing the basics of defending as a team and attacking as one as well. It made them an entertaining team to watch, especially when the ball was in the final third.
A 4-1 loss to Angola was a blip in the process but they recovered well, inflicting revenge on Angola in the return fixture to heighten belief they could really qualify, and then beating Botswana to seal their first ever qualification to spark unbelievable scenes.
Their coach Corentin Martins has seen the nation develop through his very own eyes during his five years in charge. During that time he has seen the development of the national youth structure and league structure.
What Mauritania have now is a squad of players largely plying their trade abroad; only three outfield players and the three goalkeepers still play their football locally. That wasn’t the case when Martins first took over when the majority of players were based domestically.
Expectations are low for Mauritania but they were named CAF Team of the Year last year. Let’s see if they can perform like it.
Corentin Martins has rotated between the 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 formations. He has largely picked the same defenders in his backline, with young duo Bakary N’Diaye at centre baack and Moustapha Diaw down the right among his trusted soldiers. The midfield is nothing to shout about but Diallo Guidileye, who sits just in front of the defence, has neat feet that can evade the attentions of those trying to get the ball off him. There’s plenty of vigour in attack with Adama Ba supplying the deft touches and Ismael DIakite the finishing touch.
Final third explosiveness – When Mauritania swarm forward, they do it together. But it’s the interplay of their attacking players that should be kept under control. The full backs Diaw and Aly Abeid are encouraged to get forward and the two sitting midfielders also provide a threat by making runs into the box.
The Achilles’ Heel
The lack of strength in midfield – This is AFCON. This is the tournament of creative playmakers, sure, but also midfield bodyguards. Mauritania are seriously lacking in this department and it’s easy to wonder whether their midfield can cope with a higher level of physicality.
The Tunisia-based Ismael Diakite is the veteran in the team and the closest thing Mauritania have to a star after a respectable career with the mid-table outfits of the Tunisian Ligue 1. He was the top scorer in qualifying with his three goals more than doing their bit in helping Mauritania fly to Egypt.
The Hipster’s Choice
Adama Ba has a sweet right foot with the deft touches that can give him the space to create something out of nothing. In that sense, he’s very different to the other attacking options Mauritania have. A wide midfielder by trade, he’s sometimes the most advanced player as Mauritania launch their attacks and can play well with his back to goal. He’s also got the howitzers for long ranges so free kicks outside the area in good positions should be avoided, as Ghana found out in March.
Part of France’s squad at Euro 1996, it’s fair to say Corentin Martins has really taken to international football and coaching Mauritania. He has coached them since 2014 and he’s recently decided he’s going nowhere yet: he has signed a contract keeping him with Mauritania until 2021.
It’s a tough ask to expect them to get out of this group. Benin have some interesting players but don’t have the depth and quality to cope with the challenges they will face.