West African neighbours Mali and Niger meet in Port Elizabeth for their first Group B match on Sunday at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Last year’s tournament saw Mali make it to the semi-finals guided by midfield general Seydou Keita, and this time they will be looking to the 33-year old again to steer them even further in the 2013 African Cup of Nations.
Keita will be ably assisted by former Liverpool anchorman Momo Sissoko, who makes a welcome return after a three-year hiatus to join what is mostly a team of veterans giving their final go at AFCON glory.
However, an uprising in the far north of Mali can either sidetrack or motivate the Eagles to make it past the group stage where they will also face Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“For now everything is going on fine. We have done well in preparing for the tournament and we feel set for kick-off, 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 any time soon, but we just can’t stop thinking of those back home,” said striker Sigamary Diarra.
Ironically Niger has sent troops in to Mali to help quell the unrest, but beating the Eagles could undo the good work.
Menas have a young team who will only compete at their second AFCON compared to Mali’s fourth consecutive appearance.
Nevertheless, their 2012 first round exit was a meaningful test for the Nigeriens according to veteran defender Abdoul Karim Konate.
“The first time, we went to Gabon for our first CAN. We went to discover. So, we have seen our weaknesses and our qualities. Now, for our second time, we are not going to watch, we are going to try to confirm (compete),” he said.
Of the 2012 AFCON squad, 16 were retained and this is the only likeness they share with Mali who have more to play for than the AFCON novices.
Kick-off for the Mali and Niger clash is scheduled for 20:00 at the Nelson Mandela Stadium.
Article source: http://www.football411.com/story/0,22162,14340_8406375,00.html