After scraping through the group phase, African Nations Cup hosts South Africa now have their destiny in their own hands as they head to the knockout rounds at the weekend.
They play Mali at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, on course to achieve their pre-tournament aim of reaching the semi-finals. Although they won just one of their three Group A matches, the hosts have accumulated enough confidence to suggest they can continue their run.
Up against them is a Mali side full of midfield acumen and muscle but weak in both defence and in attack. But they do have the cockiness that comes from finishing in the bronze medal position at the last finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon one year ago.
“Mali are a talented team with very good players. They play differently from the other sides we have met so far. They like to slow things down, they like to knock the ball around,” observed South Africa coach Gordon Igesund.
“The Malians are all big boys. I watched them draw against the Democratic Republic of Congo and all 11 are tall. We have to use the ball well, keep it on the ground, get behind them.”
Mali are insisting the pressure is all on the hosts: “Everyone expects South Africa to reach the semi-finals. We have nothing to lose and will try to upset the home team. Malians back home have not had much to cheer about apart from the Nations Cuip and we will be playing for them,” said Mali coach Patrice Carteron, who seeks to follow in the footsteps of another young Frenchman, Herve Renard, who won last year with Zambia.
Saturday’s encounter is only the second between the two countries and comes with a touch of irony. Mali defeated South Africa 2-0 at the last-eight stage when they hosted the continental championship in 2002. In what was South Africa’s last quarters appearance, in Kayes, Mali, the then hosts overcame a slow start to score two second-half goals.
Mali have never lost at the quarter-finals, winning in four previous appearances, three in regular time and one via a shootout. South Africa won their last eight games in 1996, 1998 and 2000.