19 January 2013

Mali/Niger: Despite War, Mali Favourites in Opening Afcon Match

Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix
Seydou Keita of Mali celebrates a goal against Niger - the first scored in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations finals.

Mali is expected to get their 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Group B campaign off to a positive start when they host minnows Niger at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Sunday.

The Maliens claimed the bronze medal 12 months ago in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, and must be considered title contenders once again.

Niger debuted on the continental stage in that event and despite some battling displays, lost all three of their matches. Their major problem is finding a way to win outside their own country and this pool - which also includes Ghana and DR Congo - looks as if it will be another struggle for them.

Although their build-up to the tournament has been smooth, Mali's players have admitted that the war between government forces and rebels back home has dominated their thoughts.

Just what effect that will have on them come Sunday remains to be seen, but midfielder Sigamary Diarra says feelings run deep.

"For now everything is going on fine. We have done well in preparing for the tournament and we feel set for kick off," he says.

"However, our thoughts and hearts are focused on the situation in Mali. We are thinking of our families and the entire nation. We have faith that peace will return anytime soon, but we just can't stop thinking of those back home."

Meanwhile, Mali coach Patrice Carteron, who took over from Alain Giresse after the 2012 tournament, says finding some consistency is the biggest challenge for his team.

"Consistency is the key to success for Mali," he says. "A problem in the past has been that the team plays well in one match and badly in the next. I have emphasised to the squad that they must play well in each game."

With the aging Seydou Keita now likely past his prime, Cheick Diabate is the dangerman for Mali, with the Bordeaux striker the chief source of goals for his side. Keeping him quiet will be key for Niger.

The man tasked with keeping him at bay is Niger goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, who plays his club football in South Africa for Premier League side Chippa United.

While being guarded on his team's chances in the pool, Daouda says preparations have gone well and that the team is comfortable in their Port Elizabeth base.

"Our preparation for this tournament has gone very well and the guys in the team are geared up for the tournament," he said. "I am most familiar with the environment and the conditions in South Africa and the whole team is acclimatising very well in Port Elizabeth.

"We are looking forward to the first game against Mali on Sunday. It's an open secret that we are in a tough group with Mali and Ghana but football is always like this. We believe in ourselves.

"The fact that no one is giving us a chance I think will work in our favour, as most of the teams are not concentrating on us. Our main target is to qualify for the knockout stages and if we do that anything is possible."

This will be the first meeting between the sides in 21 years, with their head-to-head providing just a single victory for Niger, four for Mali and two draws.

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