These two underperforming teams played out an enthralling contest in Durban on Saturday night
As this year’s African Cup of Nations rampaged into the pulsating knockout stages, Mali took on hosts—and one of the pre-tournament favourites—South Africa on Saturday night in Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Both teams looked to use this tie as a statement of intent about what they were capable of. A semifinal against Nigeria or Ivory Coast was at stake, as Durban played host to an end-to-end duel.
With South Africa having topped Group A with two wins and a draw, the home crowd were confident that Bafana Bafana could progress and potentially regain the crown which has eluded them since 1996. As Mali laboured to a second-place finish in Group B, having only scored two goals, a victory against the hosts looked unlikely.
These two teams met at the same stage in the 2002 tournament. Mali were victors on that occasion, with les Aigles winning 2-0. This year's edition was equally captivating: a tense 1-1 draw which was eventually settled by the roulette of a penalty shootout.
Ultimately, it was South Africa who blinked first, after they saw two penalties saved and one blasted wide. Mali held their nerve and out-maneuvered their opposition from 12 yards. But what did we learn from this matchup?
Furman delivered another assured performance in what has been a successful tournament for him
With only five caps to his name prior to this game, 24-year-old Dean Furman was one of the newest recruits to Gordon Igesund’s tournament squad.
Playing in central midfield, the Cape Town native fits the mould of an archetypal “engine room” player—hovering just in front of his back four, he constantly looks to break up play and then carry the ball forward to conceptualise an attack.
Beginning his career with Chelsea, Furman was never given the opportunity to make the breakthrough into the senior setup. Resigning himself to the fact that he would have to move on to progress, he was snapped up by Glasgow Rangers just before his 18th birthday in 2006.
Now at Oldham Athletic, with the League One side capturing him in 2009, he has ascended to the position of captain after submitting numerous assured performances. With that in mind, it is surprising that he did not make his debut for the senior national team until September 2012.
As South Africa crashed out of the tournament, Furman repeatedly made surging box-to-box runs, looking like a player who had been at this level for years.
With the January transfer window now a mere memory, Oldham have him until the end of the season. But, if he can replicate this performance in England's third tier, it would not be surprising to see a higher-ranked team snap him up.
Acting as the midfield enforcer, Diarra is an experienced head for the Malian national team
Throughout the game, South Africa left gaping holes in the centre of the park. Dean Furman spent his time in either the opposition penalty area or his own, resulting in an abundance of space for an opposition player to exploit.
Mali, however, couldn't capitalise. It's indisputable that Seydou Keita is a class player, and one who covered a lot of ground, but the tough-tackling Mahamadou Diarra would have complemented his teammate well.
With Keita formerly playing for Barcelona, the two have played numerous El Clasico against each other. For Mali, however, they provide a perfect foil for each other.
Ordinarily captain, the armband was instead given to Keita. He did a fine job as deputy, scoring the equaliser which forced extra time and then penalties. However, with his powerful style of play, Diarra could have taken advantage of South Africa's dallying on the ball.
South Africa's potency was succinctly exemplified by the fact that Thuso Phala's assist was via a miscued shot. As soon as they ventured into the Mali penalty area, the host's strike force never really looked dangerous.
Granted, Mali exuded strength and discipline in defence: Patrice Carteron had instructed his team to defend Soumbeyla Diakite's goal at all costs. South Africa's goal materialised in a crowded penalty area with everybody expecting Phala's effort to head goalward, as opposed to across the goal and into space.
One goal to the good, Bafana Bafana were in a strong position to put this tie to bed. Instead, they looked profligate. When they did get the ball in and around the penalty area, they rarely threatened the Malian goal.
As they tonight pack their bags, and Gordon Igesund attempts to conclude how his side crashed out prematurely, fans will be wondering what might have been, had the team been more clinical.
In addition to Phala's insipid display, which included several rash challenges, Thulani Serero didn't live up to his pre-season promise, failing to step up to the plate in a high-profile clash.
One bright spark was Bernard Parker, with the Kaiser Chiefs winger posing a constant threat down the left flank. He will have been disappointed that his trickery amounted to nothing when the ball worked its way into the box.
In an all-conquering display, stand-in captain Seydou Keita—deputising for the stricken Mahamadou Diarra—delivered an imperious performance.
As well as bagging the equaliser that kept his nation in the competition, Keita was an assured presence throughout. With a number of his compatriots playing in their first competition, Keita, a popular member of the Malian side, kept a level head at all times.
After beginning his career at Marseille, Keita is perhaps most well-known for his time at Barcelona. Often a squad player filling the void for injured teammates, he was an established and trusted member of Pep Guardiola's magisterial world-beaters.
With three La Liga medals complimenting his two Champions League titles, he left Barcelona in the summer of 2012. He garnered interest from all over Europe, with Liverpool proving to be his most likely destination in the Premier League.
So, at only 32, it was with some surprise that he opted to sign for Dalian Aerbin in China's Super League. After tonight's performance though, as he grabbed the tie by the scruff of its neck, it's clear that he still has plenty to offer.
Whether he will follow the lead of Didier Drogba and quit China only a few months after his arrival is not yet clear. Whilst his virtuoso display will prove too late for any team wishing to capture him in the January transfer window, he may still move back to Europe in the summer.
South Africa were unlucky this eve. To exit any competition through the tedium of penalties is never easy to take. The wily coach of South Africa, Gordon Igesund, almost wrestled it back from the depths of despair though.
At 56, he has a plethora of experience: the only man to coach four different teams to the domestic league title, he was an obvious candidate to replace Pitso Mosimane when he was fired last June.
In the group stages, he used the profound knowledge of his charges to navigate a set of tricky fixtures. With one victory and two defeats leading to Bafana Bafana only conceding two goals, and scoring four, they looked well-placed to vanquish this competition for the first time in 1996.
If they had gone all the way, the strategic nous of Igesund would have served crucial. In tonight's game, he made several tactical substitutions—his most notable decision was not unleashing the athletic Siphiwe Tshabalala until the midpoint of extra time.
Much was expected of this South Africa team. A fervent home crowd had high hopes that they would be able to capture some elusive silverware. With that in mind, the South African FA may choose to end his contract early. If they do, Igesund could still utilise his wealth of knowledge to have another crack at the domestic league.
Since a summer move to West Ham, Maiga (right) has found the transition difficult
During the summer transfer window of 2012, West Ham fought hard to recruit Modibo Maiga from Sochaux. At 25, he is seen as an ideal investment for the future.
However, with only four goals in 16 appearances, Maiga has not really lived up to his potential. Sam Allardyce, the West Ham coach, has persisted with Ricardo Vaz Te, Carlton Cole, the newly-recruited loanee Marouane Chamakh and even Andy Carroll, when fit.
In tonight's game, Maiga showed the same promise that saw him being hotly-tracked by a number of Premier League sides. He was lively, troubling the South African defence with his pace and vision.
Following on from today's impressive 1-0 victory over Swansea, West Ham now sit 11th in the table after 25 games. Maiga will be away for at least another week: when he returns, he will find it increasingly difficult to break into the team.
This is augmented by the fact of persistent rumours, especially in the latter stages, that his departure from the Boleyn Ground was imminent. It never materialised, but a return to Ligue 1 could be in the cards in the summer, unless he proves himself useful.
Hammers fans can take heed from his performance this eve. If he can transfer that potency to the Premier League, West Ham will have a dangerous player on their hands.