MARK O'HAIRE'S (@MarkOHaire) backed winners in five of the first six games at the 2017 African Cup of Nations. Next on his hit-list is Group D's encounter between Mali and Egypt.
Mali v Egypt | Tuesday 19:00 | Eurosport
Three 1-1 draws in the 2015 African Cup of Nations group-stages saw Mali exit at the first hurdle of an AFCON competition for only the third occasion in nine and having finished third in 2012 and 2013, the side back under Alain Giresse’s watch are looking to return to the top table.
But the Eagles’ preparations for Tuesday’s Group D opener in Port-Gentil have been hampered by a disrupted journey from the team's pre-tournament base in Morocco. And with U20 World Cup star and Monaco man Adama Traore unable to train with a knee problem, Mali could be missing their main man.
The Eagles have shown in recent years that they can match their more accomplished opposition with grit and skill. They’ve never been the most attractive outfit to follow – think Tony Pulis and you’ll have a decent idea in what to expect – but there is an exciting crop of youngsters coming through.
Mali Missing Their Star?
Traore is the headline name from the group but should he miss out, the side may lack the star power in forward areas, especially with Bakary Sako short on game-time since his switch to Crystal Palace. Powerhouse forward Moussa Marega has enjoyed strong season in Portugal and will carry the goalscoring burden.
There’s no shortage of experience in midfield and the nation ranked 13th on the continent call also call upon former French international Molla Wagu – who’s recently broken into Udinese’s side – and one of Africa’s leading centre-halves Salif Coulibaly in a formidable partnership.
So I’m expecting Giresse’s team to prove difficult to beat and rather ugly too. Both Teams To Score has banked in each of Mali’s past seven AFCON games but I think I’ll pass at the prices as Egypt are also built from solid foundations.
The Pharaohs failed to qualify for the past three AFCON finals despite claiming a hat-trick of titles in the three previous tournaments. No country has won more AFCON winners medals (7) and the pre-match favourites arrive unbeaten in 19 (W15-D4-L0) AFCON games since 2004.
Plenty of pundits are expecting Egypt to again go close at the business end of the competition and with Hector Cuper at the helm, the squad impressed when eliminating Nigeria en-route to Gabon.
The Pharaohs have also started 2018 World Cup qualification with two wins from two. Goalkeeper Essam El Hadary could become the oldest player to compete at AFCON if he plays – he turned 44 on Sunday but isn’t certain of his place as Egypt insist a choice has yet to be made between their three goalkeepers.
Nevertheless, the third ranked outfit in Africa hide their flaws by leaving little space in behind his backline, relying on the collective conservatism, unity and organisation of his side to snuff out any threats.
Egypt’s 2-3-1 features Mohammed El Nenny sitting alongside Tarek Hamed in the centre of midfield protecting the defence with Mohammed Salah’s searing pace utilised on the break.
Salah scored five goals during AFCON qualification and his speed, directness and movement allows the Pharaohs to play on the counter from a solid base. Egypt haven’t lost when scoring since November 2014 and if the Roma hitman can find his range, Cuper’s charges should go close here.
Correct Score Approach
Egypt have won seven of their past 10 games – six of which arrived by the 1-0 or 2-0 correct scores. I’m going to head towards the Correct Score market again and take a punt on the 1-0 Egyptian victory at 11/2 (BetVictor) but I’ll also invest in the 1-1 draw at the same 11/2 quote from BetVictor.
A huge 34/59 (58%) of first round AFCON group games have ended 1-1 or 1-0 this century – both results landed on 17/59 (29%) occasions. The 11/2 odds imply a 15% chance of success, so again we’re scooping up the AFCON value.
Should either Correct Score land, we’ll have ourselves a 9/4 winner.