BAFANA should regard their next opponents, Mali, as a Cape Verde with more experience, but mentally fragile.
The Eagles of Mali finished second in Group B. They are physical and have players good enough to go even as far as winning the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
Their third place in last year’s competition is evidence enough.
But unlike rookies Cape Verde, Mali are easily intimidated when not playing at home; they get swallowed by the away crowd.
Bafana, as hosts, can capitalise on this. Patrice Carteron’s Eagles have registered just one victory during the Nations Cup so far.
They were beaten by tournament favourites Ghana and held the Democratic Republic of Congo to a draw to progress to the quarterfinals from their group.
They made heavy weather of beating minnows Niger 1-0 in their opening game at the Nelson Mandela Stadium, were lucky to go down by the same narrow margin to the Black Stars and somehow managed to contain the deadly strikeforce they came up against in their clash with DRC, labouring to a 1-1 stalemate.
If Bafana have analysed this, coach Gordon Igesund will be confident of beating Mali and continuing South Africa’s road to the final.
Mali don’t function without their talisman and captain Seydou Keita, who was silenced as early as the seventh minute when they lost to Ghana. According to coach Carteron, this was a major contributing factor to the defeat.
Keita, who now plays in China, was voted man-of-the-match against Niger and DRC and he scored the Eagles’ opening goal at the Nations Cup.
But shut down Keita, as Ghana did, and you are almost home free.
Dean Furman can do a decent job of closing down Keita, but the 1.8m tall former Barcelona midfielder is not the only dangerman in the Mali team.
Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah yesterday singled out Mali as the most difficult team the Black Stars faced in Group B.
This is despite Ghana beating Mali and almost embarrassing them in a flawless victory here.
If Keita is on song, then Mali can use their other strength: their height.
Against Cape Verde at Soccer City, the Bafana central pairing of Siyabonga Sangweni and Bongani Khumalo worked tirelessly to win aerial balls. The matched ended 0-0, but when they take on Mali they might not be so lucky. The towering Mamadou Samassa is also 1.8m tall – the same height as Khumalo – but he is something of a speedster. His partnership with Cheick Diabate upfront gives defenders nightmares just thinking about it.
Diabate, who plays for Bordeaux in the French Premier League, is a few inches taller than Samassa and his true potential could be realised in this quarterfinal against Bafana.
Bafana and Mali have both conceded two goals in the tournament so far, but it’s Mali who have looked more solid at the back. And the Eagles defence, well led by veterans Fousseni Diawara, Adama Tamboura and Adama Coulibaly, has faced more lethal strikers in their Nations Cup campaign.
Diawara, for one, managed to keep Asamoah Gyan of Ghana, Mousa Maazou of Niger and Tresor Mputu of Congo in his pocket in previous matches. Katlego Mphela, Bernard Parker and Tokelo Rantie won’t have him losing any sleep.
One way to bring Mali down is to play against them at speed. They are big players who are quite aggressive on the ball, but few of them can keep up against nimble-footed playmakers who pass and move. Speed and keeping the ball on the ground – backed up by a vociferous home crowd at Moses Mabhida – could be Bafana’s best chances of a victory on Saturday night in Durban.