Africa Cup of Nations 2013: Mali’s Keita can spoil South Africa’s party

Africa Cup of Nations 2013: Ed Owen looks at Bafana Bafana's current team compared to the triumphant class of '96

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It’s safe to say that last time South Africa faced an Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final on home soil, they were in a far more confident mood.

Confronted with a powerhouse Malian side at Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium, Bafana Bafana will undoubtedly hope that the spirit of 1996 will guide them through.

Yet to match the class of ’96 seems a far-fetched dream for a side which has so far failed to stoke the passions of the Rainbow Nation.

Matched against Group A minnows Cape Verde in the tournament opener, many South Africans hoped this would be the perfect showcase to show off their country’s distinctive high-tempo game.

Yet instead, they found themselves confronted by an unimaginative style of play – lacking creative fulcrum Steven Pienaar, Gordon Igesund’s men resorted to dull, long-ball tactics.

And although a 2-0 win against Morocco might have done much to salve the wounds caused by the Blue Sharks, there is definitely something of a cloud hanging over the side.

Traditionally, the South Africans rely on controlling the midfield through superior technique to win their matches, but up against top players like Seydou Keita, they might struggle.

Coupled with the fact that the hosts’ flair players – such as Thuso Phala – have failed to fire, any mistakes or primitive tactics will likely be repaid with interest by the Eagles.

Given the circumstances which surround the West African nation – last month’s coup d’etat sparked previous manager Alain Giresse’s resignation – even a quarter-final place might be seen as a victory.

However, this Mali side could never be considered tournament also-rans – having finished third in 2012, they will have designs on snatching the trophy for the first time.

And in light of recent performances, the stuttering hosts were probably one of the best draws the 1972 runner-ups could have hoped for.

Powered on by former Barcelona man Keita, this Malian side is full of young talent plying their trade in Europe.

Possessing players such as Fiorentina’s Momo Sissoko and West Ham’s Modibo Maiga, this is the nation’s most exciting squad for years and they will want to make their mark in the competition.

Yet the star of the show is clearly Keita – considering the Chinese League wrapped up in November, his match-saving performances have been nothing short of remarkable.

And faced with a side lacking leadership since Pienaar’s international retirement, Mali’s talisman might fancy his chances of breaking his nation’s tournament duck.

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