Teams: Mali, Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia
It is the fleet of Eagles who boast the edge in Group E. Mali & Tunisia are no strangers to each other. AFCON meetings, World Cup qualifying matches. This is the sixth meeting between both sides in the last four years and the third straight tournament they have found themselves in the same group. Mali have won one and drawn one of those meetings, but it is Tunisia who have the edge in the World Cup qualification encounters and friendlies. There is only one title between both teams, but Mali are the perennial underachievers at the AFCON.
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Les Aiglons’ biggest problem has always been an inability to get out of their own way. Across their last eight AFCON appearances, they have been eliminated in the group stages four times, and knocked out in the Last 16 in the last two, with the last one even more outrageous than the previous, falling to Equatorial Guinea. Eric Chelle, the head coach will feel the same pressure Mohammed Magassouba felt over his five years in charge.
Chelle played for Mali between 2004 and 2006, but never went to a major tournament, he is overseeing a generation of talented midfielders, and a rising creme of attackers, the pressure is on. Jaleel Kadiri, the Tunisia boss has equally the same amount of pressure. There are no excuses anymore, he is not the assistant who got the job, defied the odds and reached the quarterfinals in Cameroon. Kadiri has moulded the team in his image, but Tunisians crave more than what they have tagged defensive and boring football.
The Carthage Eagles have reached the semifinals once since winning the title in 2004. In fact, bar Nigeria and Algeria, who were in their pomp, the Tunisians have not beaten a team at their level as at the time of the start of the competition since 2004. Their wins over Morocco and Zambia create a false sense. The Moroccan team they beat in 2012 were in a rebuild, the same boat as Zambia & South Africa in 2006, 2015 and 2008 respectively. There is a message to be sent.
Hugo Broos has met every target he has set for himself as coach of South Africa, and that in itself is a scary prospect. The wily Belgian won the AFCON in 2017 with a Cameroonian team nobody had expectations of; in fact, there were as many as eight players who turned their backs on the national team that year, what they must feel now.
Broos has stamped his authority since arriving at the Rainbow Nation. The recipe there is one for AFCON success for the Bafana Bafana. A coach of his profile and a team built around the core of the best club side in the land, Mamelodi Sundowns. Bafana upset the order in 2019 when they sent Egypt packing on home soil under Stuart Baxter, and it would be wise to be wary of them under Broos.
Former defender Mark Fish has called on the team to write their own history, especially with what many call a golden Generation of Sundowns players. Themba ‘Mshimshi’ Zwane will bring style, while Zakhele Lepasa will bring physicality, pressing and finishing, Ronwen Williams is a safe pair of hands and Khuliso Mudau is as good as any fullback right now on the continent. Tunisia & Mali have been warned.
Anyone who underestimates Namibia at this juncture simply is looking for trouble. The Brave Warriors put Cameroon on the brink of elimination after going unbeaten against the Lions over two legs. It is what you get when you can call on two of the PSL’s finest strikers in Peter Shalulile and Deon Hotto. If both are on song, the other three teams in the group may have to be on high alert.
Their last AFCON trip ended in futility and had a similar makeup to this. Mali have replaced Ivory Coast, while it is Tunisia instead of Morocco. There is no gainsaying that lessons were learned from that experience. This is their fourth ever AFCON; they have yet to win a game across 9 matches and have scored just 5 goals, but if recent results are to go by, Collin Benjamin’s men may change the narrative.
Tunisia- Ben Said; Abdi,Talbi, Meriah, Kechrida; Skhiri, Laidouni, Sassi, Sliti; Msakni, Khennisi
Mali – Diawara; Traore, Fofana, Niakate, M. Haidara; A. Haidara, Bissouma, Dieng, L. Coulibaly; Sissoko, Doumbia
South Africa – Williams; Mudau, Xulu, Mvala, Modiba; Sithole, Mokoena T.; Zwane, Tau, Mayambela; Lepasa
Namibia – Kazapua; Hanamub, Gebhardt, Nyambe, Amutenya, Kamberipa; Petros, Shitembi; Hotto, Shalulile, Muzeu
Stars to Watch
Yves Bissouma (Tottenham Hotspur and Mali)
The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is the standout player in a midfield that boasts Adama Traore, Amadou Haidara, and Diadie Samassekou. Bissouma is tipped by many as arguably the best midfielder on the continent at this juncture. Guile, vision, tackling, and press resistance are traits he eschews to a tee. Add that to his ability to shoot from range. He is not far away from the odd red card, but then when he is in his element, Mali are a scary prospect.
Youssef Msakni (Tunisia and Al Arabi)
Tunisia’s eternal number 7. Ever since Msakni broke through as a bright youngster 13 years ago, He has done just about everything in Carthage white. For a man whom many thought his talents belonged to mainstream Europe, Msakni unburdened himself early, choosing the luxuries of the Middle East instead.
However, every two years, he reminds us why he is just that spectacular showman. He has scored two goals that definitely go down in AFCON lore, his belter against Algeria in 2013 was magnificent, and his piledriver against Nigeria in 2022 sent the nation on an ultimate search of goalkeepers. Even in advanced age, if Tunisia are to do anything special, it will be through him.
Themba Zwane (South Africa and Mamelodi Sundows)
Mshishi, as he is fondly called, is the crowned jewel of the rainbow nation. Zwane’s football is full of flair, excitement and goals. His creativity and ability to move in between the lines will be imperative for the Bafana Bafana in the final third. He has yet to really match his performances for Sundowns Yellow in Bafana Yellow, but just like Thembikonsi Lorch in 2019, this could be his moment. He never shies from the big moment, and his stats this season even back it up. Going from extremely proactive football to quite reactive football may be an issue, but Zwane’s talents can cope with it.
Peter Shalulile (Namibia and Mamelodi Sundowns)
The ultimate sniper, Shalulile is old school in every sense of the word. Shirt always tucked in, shorts at a higher level than the midriff, and socks drawn above knee level. Add that he always scores, and you get the sense that Shalulile is that guy in your school who never does anything wrong. Finishes top of the class always, has no vices, listens to the teachers, never looks down on anyone and will happily teach those who ask for help.
His goals in qualifying all but guaranteed Namibia a place at the Mundial. He has struggled with injury at times this season, but a player who made the final shortlist for the InterClub Player of the Year is definitely not one to be scuffed at. He won the PSL Golden Boot by a mile two seasons ago, and last season just edged Khanyisa Mayo by virtue of his superior assists tally. He doesn’t only score, he sets them up too. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
By: Tosin Holmes / @Cosimo_diMedici
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sarah Stier – FIFA