Mali and their gang of Adama Traores (they are only unleashing two on fans and commentators, thankfully) seem to be a popular dark horse pick coming into this year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
AFCON 2021: Mali – Team guide, key players and full fixtures
All you need to know about the Eagles of Mali ahead of AFCON 2021.
The reason is obvious, and can be observed when one considers their recent form. Mali breezed through the Second Round of World Cup qualifying, winning five of their six matches and, just as pertinently, not conceding a single goal. You know how they say defence wins titles?
The Eagles finished in top spot in Group A of AFCON qualifying, pipping Guinea by two points and only losing once. All the signs around Mali are positive; the question is whether they can translate that form into a decent run at a major tournament for the first time since reaching the Semi-finals in 2013.
They are Africa's 9th-best team according to FIFA's December 2021 ranking. In the world, they come in 53rd.
In their first-ever AFCON appearance in 1972, Mali went all the way to the Final, but had to settle for being the runners-up as they lost to Congo. The next time they would qualify for and make an appearance at the competition was in 1994, when they finished fourth. They also achieved back-to-back third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013.
The coach and tactical approach
Mohamed Magassouba was Mali's caretaker manager between September 2017 and July 2019, before becoming the permanent manager in October 2019. Avuncular and well-respected, the 64-year-old has installed a 4-2-3-1 that is geared toward getting the best from his players and adopting tactical elements they are familiar with at club level. That means his young Mali side are aggressive without the ball, especially in the middle of the park, play with a high line and keep the ball very well. That, more than anything, is the cornerstone of their defensive success.
Yves Bissouma is back from the international wilderness, and while his return has the potential to disrupt what is already an established system, tactically he is a good fit for the style of play. What he will add is a better feel for the tempo of the game and ball-carrying ability, as he will definitely play a more expansive role for Mali than he does at Brighton.
Not that Mali are lacking in terms of energy or quality in the middle though. There is a reason RB Leipzig midfielder Amadou Haidara is being linked to Manchester United after all. Capable of a multitude of roles, he offers great flexibility in a strategic sense. Adama Noss Traore has the keys of the team creatively, and on the flanks Moussa Djenepo has the ability to both excite and frustrate in equal measure with his quick feet and variable end product.
Mohamed Camara could be a real asset for the Eagles at Cameroon. The 22-year-old is at his best when tasked with the responsibility of supporting the defenders during the first phase of the build-up, while also hoovering up balls in front of the defence.
Ibrahima Mounkoro; Falaye Sacko, Senou Coulibaly, Moussa Sissako, Charles Traore; Amadou Haidara, Yves Bissouma; Adama Traore, Adama Noss Traore, Moussa Djenepo; Ibrahima Kone.
Mali are more than a match for just about any team, but considering their most recent concession came at the hands of Tunisia, they might have to settle for second in Group F. That might actually be to their benefit, and would tee up an epic quarter-final against Cameroon that could go either way. A place in the semis is far from beyond them.