Ivory Coast vs Mali | Saturday 24 January | Malabo | 18:00
With both teams having drawn their first round fixtures, the 1992 AFCON champions, Ivory Coast, take on an unpredictable Malian side in Malabo on Saturday. Up until now the earlier games have been played in scorching conditions, and both sides will have hopefully adapted to these hotter than usual circumstances.
To Win (90mins)
Ivory Coast 17/20
The West African Elephants have the strength in depth and ability to win just about any AFCON game on paper. With some of the most prolific attacking players on the continent, it’s no wonder Mali have never beaten these giants before. Of their three previous encounters, it was their most recent match in one of the AFCON 2012 semi-finals that Mali came closest to a result, going down 1-0 courtesy of a 45th minute Gervinho goal. Unfortunately, Ivory Coast’s hero from that day is suspended for the rest of the group stage following a moment of madness that beggars belief. Gervinho punched Guinea defender Naby Keita in the second half of their Group D match, landing himself a straight red card. However, coach Herve Renard will be confident on the back of the history between the two sides going into the fixture.
Mali will come into this as slight underdogs, but with everything on the line in this type of competition and the group wide open, Mali will feel more than usual that an upset is ever possible. Nicknamed the Eagles, their build up to AFCON 2015 wasn’t great. Their only friendly against Gabon was cancelled and if it wasn’t for their last round qualifying win over giants Algeria, they may well not have found themselves in the tournament. Mali conspired to draw by conceding late against a tough Cameroon side, who progressed to AFCON 2015 in a group containing Ivory Coast, DR Congo and Sierra Leone. However, the performance will have lifted their spirits somewhat. Their talisman, Seydou Keita, who recently became the most capped Malian international ever, will have to have his side at their best to compete.
VERDICT: Ivory Coast 17/20
Despite this being a do-or-die type of competition, I always feel a mix of strong youth and experience is key. Mali have that somewhat, but not on the same scope as the Ivory Coast. Expect a cagey affair, particularly with Mali getting a result in their opening fixture, but over the 90 minutes I see the Elephants prevailing here.