Opinion: Why Mali could be more crucial to Ghana’s Afcon 2017 hopes
All the talk leading to Ghana ’s opening game at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations has been centred around the difficulty posed by Egypt and Uganda, two teams that they have faced in recent World Cup qualifying matches picking a single point.
However, many Black Stars fans have overlooked the threat of West African neighbours Mali ahead of their second game in Group D in Port Gentil on January 21.
Ghana will open their campaign against Uganda on Tuesday in what has become a familiar fixture after they both clashed in October. The Cranes are making their return to the competition since losing in the final match to Ghana in 1978. Their resurgence saw them hold the Black Stars to a goalless draw in Tamale. Hence, coach Avram Grant and his team know what to expect from this history-making Cranes side who have Milutin Sredojevic in charge. The Serbian has been taunting his opponents and claims he knows them well enough to trouble them on Tuesday.
A draw in their opening game would be acceptable but when Mali is your next opponent, then the Stars have to be careful how they start the competition.
The last time both sides met in the third place match of Afcon 2013 in Port Elizabeth, Mali ran out 3-1 winners, reprising their victory at the same stage a year earlier in Equatorial Guinea. While Ghana edge the head-to-head, Mali have shown in recent years that they can match their more accomplished opponents with grit and skill.
After losing in group games against the Stars both in 2012 and 2013, they ensured they earned their vengeance when it mattered most in the match for bronze by winning both times. Ghana cannot afford to let their guards down when they meet once more.
Their last official game took place in a friendly encounter in Paris in 2015 with both teams settling for a draw. While the Malian side has changed over the years, losing the core of its glorious midfield strength to retirement, Ghana has retained many key players over the last few years and seem to have more experience in midfield coming into the Afcon in Gabon.
But Mali’s coach thinks he’s got a joker up his sleeves.
“Everyone thinks Egypt and Ghana are the favorites of our group, and Mali an outsider. That makes sense,” Alain Giresse told Jeune Afrique . “Ghana is very good both technically and collectively, although they have had some difficulties in 2016. Egypt is strong and powerful, with Mohamed Salah one of the best African players and it is a team that concedes very few goals.
“But it will be very open. We have our chances, we will play them to the end. Mali finished third in 2012 and 2013? Let's go through the first round.”
One of Mali’s danger men is its most experienced forward Mustapha Yatabare of Karabukspor but they will also have inspiration from the middle in AS Monaco man Adama Traore, the best player at the 2015 Fifa U20 World Cup in New Zealand. The Eagles are young but strong, they came through qualifying with five victories and a draw.
Ghana need to start well against Uganda before they meet a determined Mali side that will be tough to push aside ahead of their final group game against Egypt. With the Black Stars struggling to find scoring form in recent internationals, there will be no walk overs in Gabon.