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Pan-Africa Football’s AFCON preview: Group F

It is time for Africa’s showcase football tournament as the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations prepares to kick off in Cameroon starting on January 9. Pan-Africa Football will be covering the competition in depth and is previewing the tournament by going through all of the groups and identifying who and what to watch for all teams. Check out our first group preview below with a look at Group F featuring Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia.

Tunisia

Manager

Mondher Kebaier

The 51-year-old is a veteran who has seen plenty during his years in Tunisian football. After rising from playing for hometown club CA Bizertin to managing the team in 2000, Kebaier has spent time at top clubs in the country including Étoile du Sahel, Club Africain, and Espérance. After a brief spell as interim manager at Espérance in 2018, Kebaier worked in the media before being hired for his current position, an appointment that was met with a surprise reception.

However, Kebaier has accumulated an impressive record of 19 wins, 4 draws and 5 losses since his appointment in August 2019 and led the Carthage Eagles to the runner-up position at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup. Tunisia has plenty of momentum going into the AFCON and Kebaier’s steady hand has been an important feature. Kebaier’s tactics vary based on the opponent and will keep his team unpredictable for opponents.

Key Players

Wahbi Khazri – Saint-Étienne (FRA)

Any time Tunisia needs an important goal or difference making pass, Wahbi Khazri is the player who takes on the responsibility. The creative playmaker will be counted on to be the director of the Tunisian attack and will be responsible for the team’s set pieces, making him crucial to Tunisia’s chances of coming out on top when the knockout stage arrives. French club Saint-Étienne have had a miserable season, but the 30-year-old is doing well with 7 goals in 18 league matches this campaign for the Ligue 1 side.

Seifeddine Jaziri – Zamalek (EGY)

Jaziri’s rise has been meteoric since the return of football from the initial Covid-19 pandemic. The 28-year-old was a late bloomer in his club career, making his breakthrough with Arab Contractors in Egyptian football before landing at Zamalek and being a rotation piece in the team that captured the 2020-21 Egyptian Premier League title. Success at Zamalek was enough for Jaziri to get a look under Kebaier, and he has not looked back by delivering on his opportunities and being the top scorer at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup. Can Jaziri continue a remarkable run at national team level in Cameroon?

Hannibal Mejbri – Manchester United (ENG)

18-year-old Hannibal Mejbri and his status as the wildcard in the squad is the reason why this Tunisia team is different than in years past. Making his English Premier league debut for Manchester United last season, the former France youth international has progressed to becoming a full fledged phenom since switching his allegiance to the country of his parents’ birth and making his debut in a friendly against DR Congo last June. Hannibal received plenty of playing time and was a regular starter at the Arab Cup, suggesting that Kebaier will give the midfielder an opportunity to showcase his smooth close control and creativity on the ball at the AFCON.

PAF’s Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Prediction

This Tunisia side proved plenty during its run to the final of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup and deserves plenty of attention from the top contenders at the Africa Cup of Nations. They will be favorites to win Group F over a strong but unproven Mali team and are capable of taking down teams such as Senegal and Algeria in the knockout rounds. Tunisia are likely to make it to the quarterfinals, and make for a great surprise pick to win the competition.

Mali

Manager

Mohamed Magassouba

Magassouba has served in various roles with the national side, progressing from being an assistant coach and technical director to the head coach since taking over on an interim basis in September 2017. Previously making his name in Congolese football with two spells as the DR Congo national team manager in 1997 and 2000, Magassouba will be looking to improve on Mali’s 2019 exit in the Round of 16. He already has a positive experience in Cameroon to draw upon after guiding the domestic-based national team to the final of the 2020 African Nations Championship played last January. Expect Magassouba’s team to line up either in a 4-2-3-1 or some variation of a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation.

Key Players

Adama Malouda Traoré – Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA)

Either attacking midfielder named Adama Traoré could be important at the competition, but the player who goes by Adama Malouda Traoré when playing for Mali gets the edge because of his prolific season for club and country. The 26-year-old made his name in African club football, moving to Congolese powerhouse TP Mazembe as a teenager and helping the Ravens to the 2015 CAF Champions League title as well as the 2016 & 2017 CAF Confederation Cup. Moving to French club Metz soon after his 23rd birthday, Traoré is starring for Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol where he was a big contributor during their noise-making UEFA Champions League group stage campaign. Brings a calm presence to the midfield who is comfortable assisting or scoring goals, moving the ball quickly and intelligently when Mali ventures forward. Also featured as Mali’s set piece specialist during 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying.

Falaye Sacko – Vitória de Guimarães (POR)

Sacko is the utility player in the Malian defense, capable of lining up at his favored position of right back but also as a center back. It is the latter position where Sacko will likely line up at the AFCON because Mali lacks proven experience at the position. Sacko started every match of Mali’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign the last four months and while lacking the size associated with central defenders, he makes up for it with leadership, pace, leaping ability and skill when defending one-on-one.

Ibrahima Koné – Sarpsborg 08 (NOR)

Koné blossomed at the perfect time for club and country, scoring five goals in five games during World Cup qualifying for Mali to force his way into a starting spot for Les Aigles. The 22-year-old physically powerful striker excelled for Norwegian club Sarpsborg in the 2021 season with eleven goals before earning his opportunity for the senior Mali side under Magassouba, who was eager to find a reliable goal scoring threat up top due to Moussa Marega’s inconsistent commitment to the team. Koné scored his goals for Mali against relatively weak competition compared to the defenses he will face at the AFCON, but he has the necessary form and confidence to prove himself on the big stage.

PAF’s Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Prediction

Mali will fear no team at the competition because confidence is at its highest level after the team tore through an easy FIFA World Cup qualifying group with no defeats. A top-2 spot is expected in the group stage of the AFCON but Mali will need to watch out for a potentially slippery matchup against Gambia. The talent is there for the Eagles but at this point, Magassouba has yet to find a consistent center back partnership for a defense that was not adequately tested in their easy World Cup qualifying campaign. The talent is there for a surprise deep run due to their very talented midfield, but the quarterfinals appear to be what the team should aim for.

Mauritania

Manager

Didier Gomes da Rosa

Only six months ago nobody would have expected Gomes da Rosa to be on the hunt for a job, having had a successful 2020-21 season with Tanzanian champions club Simba SC. However, after a shocking defeat at home against Botswana club Jwaneng Galaxy that resulted in Simba’s premature elimination from the 2021-22 CAF Champions League, the punishment was harsh for the French coach and now he has quickly jumped to managing Mauritania after parting ways with Simba. Mauritania represents Gomes da Rosa’s first attempt at managing a national team following eight years of managing clubs all over Africa. The AFCON will be a challenge of the highest order, but Gomes da Rosa has a few competitive games under his belt at the FIFA Arab Cup earlier in December with a morale boosting victory over Syria to show for it.

Key Players

Aboubakar Kamara – Aris Thessaloniki (GRC)

It took several years of attempts from the Mauritania federation, but since the strong 26-year-old striker committed to the national side in early 2021 he has been a much needed boost to the Mauritanian attack. After a five year spell with Fulham FC in English football that saw his playing time at the club level fluctuate, Kamara is with Aris Thessaloniki in Greece and starting regularly to put him in peak form heading into Cameroon. With scoring opportunities likely to be limited for his team, Kamara’s physicality and finishing will be necessary for Mauritania to have any chance of progressing beyond the group stage.

Guessouma Fofana – CFR Cluj (ROU)