JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Brighton midfielder Yves Bissouma has made peace with Mali coach Mohamed Magassouba and is set to be a driving force behind the bid to go far at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon from Sunday.
He fell out of favour in 2018 and a shoulder injury prevented him being considered for the 2019 Cup of Nations in Egypt, where Mali made a disappointing last-16 exit.
While it would be stretching optimism to believe Mali can go all the way, they seem certain to secure a top-two finish in a section including one-time champions Tunisia, minnows Mauritania and debutants the Gambia.
Here, AFP Sport puts the spotlight on the four Group F contenders. The group winners and runners-up are assured of last-16 places while the best four third-placed teams from the six sections also qualify.
Mali have regularly punched above their weight, finishing second, third twice and fourth three times in 11 appearances at the African football showpiece.
While not among the favourites in Cameroon, a squad including Bissouma and Southampton forward Moussa Djenepo from the Premier League are certainly capable of reaching the quarter-finals.
In most of the six groups finishing first carries a huge advantage as the table toppers then face a third-placed team in the round of 16.
Group F is different. The winners will likely face title-holders Algeria or the Ivory Coast while the runners-up would have a theoretically easier task against the Group B runners-up, possibly Guinea.
The Carthage Eagles hope a frustrating start to preparations is not a sign of things to come as the floodlights went out just minutes into a training session near Tunis and did not come back on.
Tunisia are an incredibly consistent team as they have now qualified for an unrivalled 15 consecutive Cup of Nations tournaments from 1994.
During that time the north Africans have been champions once, runners-up once, semi-finalists twice and quarter-finalists six times.
Having reached the semi-finals in Egypt three years ago, the expectations of supporters will be that a team captained by Saint-Etienne forward Wahbi Khazri will go at least as far in Cameroon.
After reaching the Cup of Nations finals for the first time in 2019 and then qualifying for back-to-back appearances, the fortunes of Mauritania nose-dived.
Expected to be competitive recently in a World Cup group including Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia, they fared woefully, collecting just two points from a possible 18 and finishing last.
French coach Corentin Martins, who had been in charge since 2014, was fired and compatriot Gerard Buscher, elevated from his technical director role, did not last long after a poor Arab Cup showing.
Another Frenchman, Didier Gomes Da Rosa, has taken over and will do well to plot a victory over the Gambia and secure possible qualification as one of the best four third-placed finishers.
Gambia, who began the 2021 Cup of Nations qualifying competition as the only west African country never to reach the finals, have finally made it with Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet getting much of the credit.
They needed a penalty shootout to oust minnows Djibouti in a preliminary tie, then topped a group including fellow qualifiers Gabon, surprise flops the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola.
“Tom brought discipline and structure to our game,” said captain Pa Modou Jagne, a veteran defender who plays in the Swiss lower leagues.