Defensive carnage rescued by resiliency personified would just about sum up Mali’s opening result in this year’s African Cup of Nations. Rescuing a four goal deficit with 11 minutes remaining against Angola may not have been part of coach, Stephen Keshi’s, pre-match prep talk, but at least he knows his team contain a character and ability to go for the jugular when blood is smelt.
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The same may not be said of Algeria coach, Rabah Saadane. The former Yemen manager could only look on as he watched his side lie down like the proverbial, lambs to the slaughter, against supposed group featherweights, Malawi. Even the most gullible of supporters would have struggled to digest the Bandas’ 3-0 humiliation of the Desert Foxes.
This leaves Thursday’s meeting of the two on a knife-edge. Separated by a point, the Eagles will view this as an opportunity to send the Algerians home early. Saadane’s men may have started the tournament as group favourites, but by the time this game kicks-off in Luanda not one of Africa’s representatives in South Africa will have registered a victory in CAF 2010. A surprising fact considering only Ghana have still to open their campaign, yet one that adds fuel to an argument that the continent’s elite suffer from motivational issues in a World Cup year.
Another factor which could support the Malian cause is the return to form of Seydou Keita. The Barcelona man sat out all of Mali’s build-up matches and was deemed not fit enough to start against Angola. His 35th minute introduction may not have sparked an immediate switch in the momentum of the game, but Keita can claim to be the catalyst that helped snatch such an unlikely draw.
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Keshi may well subscribe to this theory; however, his more pressing concern will lie in plugging a leaking defence that was cohesion-free on Sunday. Angola’s Flavio and Gilberto cut Mali to shreds in the opening period, while unnecessary challenges from Mamadou Bagayoko and Keita led to the concession of two soft penalties.
Step one of the remedy could see the return of Mohamed Sissoko. The Juventus man could sit just in front of the back four, alongside Mahamadou Diarra in a bid to thwart the attacking threat of Karim Ziani. However, Keshi may also opt to keep faith with the same backline that began against the Black Antelopes with orders to apply higher levels of focus and concentration.
Algeria may be in the firing line, but the Eagles must be aware of a backlash. Despite the embarrassing defeat to Malawi, the Desert Foxes still contain a lot of quality in Madjid Bougherra and Ziani, plus they have the experience of emerging from the recent infamous double-header with Egypt. Saadane will rigorously remind his players that the World Cup doesn’t start till June and they have a duty to perform for an expectant nation.
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With the opening games in the group providing such shocks and drama, the battle for qualification is wide open. Angola will be desperate to see off Malawi in the evening kick-off, which makes an Algerian victory over Mali imperative for their hopes. However, the Eagles will have taken huge confidence from their first game and view anything other than defeat a step towards the knockout phase. The Desert Foxes are vulnerable right now; expect Keshi’s men to twist the knife.
Prediction: Mali 2 Algeria 1