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Wolves fans will watch Mali at Africa Cup of Nations with interest

Mali’s Africa Cup of Nations history is real Jekyll and Hyde stuff. They either fail to qualify or scrape through and then bow out in the first round, or reach the semi-finals or better.

The Eagles have finished third at both of the previous two editions of this continental competition, and doing so again, therefore, is what is expected of them. If Mali are to make the business end of this tournament in Equatorial Guinea, then it is to a couple of players plying their trade in Wolverhampton that much of the burden will fall upon.

Since Wolves’ dramatic fall from Premier League grace, only one name can truly be said to have performed consistently in attack. Bakary Sako has stayed at Molineux through relegation and promotion, and was their joint-top scorer en route to taking the League One title last term.

Add that and seven goals in the Championship this term to three international strikes in just eight caps, and the 26-year-old is a key player for both club and country. Wolves teammate Nouha Dicko, meanwhile, has only received clearance to play for Mali this year, having switched international allegiance from France like Sako.

It may take time for former Wigan Athletic forward Dicko to grow into international football, but there are established front men Cheick Diabate (Bordeaux) and Mustapha Yatabare (Trabzonspor) for national coach Henryk Kasperczak to choose from too.

The Polish gaffer is in his second stint as Eagles boss, having previously managed finals group rivals the Ivory Coast, as well as Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia. Kasperczak steered Mali to the semi-finals in 2002, so knows what is required at these tournaments.

In midfield, there’s a West Midlands flavour to his regular inclusions, with Wanderers old boy Tongo Doumbia joining ex-Aston Villa player Yacouba Sylla in providing an effective screen for the back four and platform for the frontline.

Box-to-box duties still fall on former Barcelona player Seydou Keita, now 34 and at Roma, though Olympiakos-owned Sambou Yatabare has been given run-outs in this position lately too.

The flanks of defence are occupied by veteran full backs Fousseni Diawara and Adama Tamboura, but there may be a soft centre here as Mali conceded six in qualifying. Finishing second best behind Algeria in their pool, they now take on heavyweight pair Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, plus Guinea in their group at the finals.

It will be a tall order to reach the quarters in Equatorial Guinea, but the Eagles have soared before. On paper they should finish third, but are likely to prove tough opposition for the established big boys, despite their greater strength in depth.