BAMAKO, January 8 – Mali, spearheaded by Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute, are making their sixth appearance in the African Cup of Nations.The landlocked, largely desert west Africa country finished runners-up to Congo in 1972 and fourth in 1994 in Tunisia, in 2002 when they hosted the biennial continental football showcase, and in 2004 in Tunisia again.
Two years ago Les Aigles (Eagles) failed to make it out of a tough first round group after a 1-0 win over Benin, a worthy goalless draw against giants Nigeria and a 3-0 loss to Ivory Coast.
In Angola they are drawn in Group A and face a tricky encounter against the hosts in the competition’s opening fixture in Luanda on Sunday, followed by 2010 World Cup finalists Algeria four days later and closing with Malawi on January 18.
If they can scrape their way past that opposition another top four finish is not impossible.
Aside from 2007 African Footballer of the year Kanoute Mali’s Nigerian manager Stephen Keshi has a plethora of players attached to major European clubs at his disposal.
The midfield is especially strong with the likes of Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, Real Madrid’s Mahamadou Diarra, and Mohamed Lamine Sissoko of Juventus.
The squad features no fewer than 14 players based in France, including Abdou Traore.
One regular who will not be making the trip to Angola however is Sidi Yaya Keita, the injured Spanish-based midfielder, whose place has been filled by Samba Sow of French club Lens.
In goal they have Soumbeyla Diakite, who performed heroics for his club Stade Malien when he saved three spotkicks in a shoot out triumph over Entente Setif of Algeria to net Mali’s first African club title in December.
As for Kanoute he contributed eight goals in their qualifying campaign to get to Angola, a haul only bettered by Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Moumouni Dagano of Burkina Faso.
Mali failed to make the 2010 World Cup despite holding qualifiers Ghana to a 2-2 draw in their final qualifier in December, to finish a disappointing third in their group behind Ghana and Benin.
That result was earned despite a trio of key players unavailable including Kanoute, Keita and Sissoko.