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2023 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifying Preview: Group G

Mali

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FIFA Ranking: 52

AFCON Appearances: 12

Best Finish: Runners-up (1972)

Manager: Éric Chelle

Key Player

Yves Bissouma (Brighton- England)

With a new national team coach Bissouma has a clean slate to work with after having an up and down relationship with previous manager Mohamed Magassouba. In a team filled with talented central midfielders the 25-year-old is the most effective moving forward and is necessary to the success of Mali’s attack. Offering excellent vision and covering plenty of ground, Bissouma failed to get the Malian attack involved in their crucial 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying final round tie against Tunisia which the Eagles lost 1-0 on aggregate over two legs. There is enough talent in this team to reach the final stages of an AFCON but Bissouma must function effectively as the link between defense and attack.

Other players to watch

Abdoulaye Doucouré (Everton- England) French-born Doucouré’s arrival into the Mali setup at 29-years-old before the Tunisia tie was celebrated with plenty of fanfare but it did not end up getting the team into their first ever World Cup. Now with a couple appearances under his belt it will be interesting to see if the box-to-box central midfielder can support Bissouma in fortifying the connection between defense and attack down the middle.

Ibrahima Koné (Lorient- France) A physical bully of a striker who launched himself into position as the answer to Mali’s issues at the #9 position, Koné will look to replicate his success in the group stage of Qatar 2022 qualifying and the 2021 AFCON, where he scored a combined eight goals in ten appearances.

Hamari Traoré (Rennes- France) Consistency and leadership is the theme with the 30-year-old right back who continues to excel for club and country, being named as a finalist for the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé award given to the best African player in France’s Ligue 1.

Outlook

A steady team with quality in every position, the only question for Mali is the inexperience of former player and new manager Chelle who has been limited to managing lower league French clubs in his early coaching career. A deceptively difficult group will certainly test the team but it is difficult to see catastrophe striking the Malian team and they should be able to qualify comfortably.

Republic of Congo

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FIFA Ranking: 98

AFCON Appearances: 7

Best Finish: Winners (1972)

Manager: Paul Put

Key Player

Guy Mbenza (Wydad AC- Morocco)

It has been a spectacular club season for the striker who moved on loan from Belgian club Royal Antwerp to Moroccan giants Wydad. Mbenza just won the 2021-22 CAF Champions League and currently leads Morocco’s Botola Pro in goals. Bringing pace, aerial prowess and excellent instincts in the 18-yard box, the 22-year-old will look to carry his club form into the national team and could be the catalyst for a surprise run into the top-2 for les Diables Rouges.

Other players to watch

Dylan Saint-Louis (Hatayspor- Turkey) Following a season with Troyes where he was a major contributor as the French club earned promotion to the top flight Ligue 1, the 27-year-old winger/forward featured regularly in the Turkish Super League for mid-table Hatayspor with four goals and five assists this past season. Saint-Louis is a leader in the Congolese team and attack as part of a dangerous attacking corps.

Marvin Baudry (Laval- France) The veteran center back helped club Laval to top honors in the French third tier Championnat National and is making his return to the national team after spending a couple of years out of the Congo team. Appeared in all four matches during Congo’s surprise run at the 2015 AFCON where they topped their group before bowing out to DR Congo in the quarterfinals.

Antoine Makoumbou (Maribor- Slovenia) Has made an instant impact since joining the national team setup in 2021. The Paris-born central midfielder adds passing vision and skill on the ball in possession and is set to be an important player for the Diables Rouges in their qualifying efforts.

Outlook

Under manager Paul Put the Republic of Congo are a capable side who have a formidable attack but lack a superstar presence outside of striker Guy Mbenza, who will need service in order to thrive. There is potential in this side but it is difficult to see them making a return to the AFCON with strong sides Mali and Gambia in the group.

Gambia

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FIFA Ranking: 123

AFCON Appearances: 1

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2021)

Manager: Tom Saintfiet

Key Player

Musa Barrow (Bologna- Italy)

Musa Barrow is an attacker who continues to thrive in Italian football and looks destined to move to an even higher level club. With 27 goals in 132 Serie A appearances the forward has also contributed 21 assists and has an excellent work rate that allows him to find space to operate while also drawing defenders away from his teammates. In a Gambian attack with plenty of talent and potential to score at any moment, Barrow stands out as a bona fide star and will look to build upon a good 2021 AFCON where his two goals and two assists helped guide the Scorpions to a surprise quarterfinal appearance in their competition debut.

Other players to watch

Omar Colley (Sampdoria- Italy) The towering center back began his career with stops at Wallidan and Real de Banjul in Gambia before moving through Scandinavia and Belgium on his way to the Serie A. A huge asset to the Scorpions as a captain and leader in the backline.

Assan Ceesay (FC Zürich- Switzerland) It was an incredible 2021-22 season for the striker in the Swiss Super League with twenty goals and eleven assists but his form for the national team has bene frustratingly inconsistent. Scored the timely goal that prevented Gambia from a shock aggregate defeat in the 2023 AFCON qualifying preliminary round to Chad but his starting spot is not guaranteed.

Sulayman Marreh (Gent- Belgium) A solid defensive midfielder who started every match at the 2021 AFCON, there is not too much that is flashy about the 26-year-old’s game but he will leave a mark on opposing players. Hardly featured for Belgian club Gent this season but is a lock to start for the Scorpions if healthy.

Outlook

The one thing that could hurt Gambia’s chances of qualifying for back-to-back AFCON’s is the fact that the Scorpions cannot play home matches in the country but there is too much quality in the side and the draw was favorable to them. Expect them to get the job done once again with their excellent attack and strong leadership in key defensive positions.

South Sudan

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FIFA Ranking: 161

AFCON Appearances: 0

Best Finish: N/A

Manager: Stefano Cusin

Key Player

Tito Okello (Paykan- Iran)

The Ugandan-born forward has become a talisman for the Bright Stars since pledging his allegiance to the South Sudan team in 2020. Previously starred for Ugandan club Vipers SC before moving to Kenya’s Gor Mahia and then to Iranian football following Gor’s financial issues. A tall and lanky forward who likes to run at defenders, watch out for the 26-year-old to be a match winner for a team that has been very vocal about its intentions to not only surprise their qualifying opponents but to achieve qualification.

Other players to watch

Peter Maker (ZESCO United- Zambia) The captain of South Sudan is an absolute giant at 1.98 m (6’6) and went the full ninety minutes in all of the Bright Stars’ matches during qualification for the 2021 edition. Will anchor the defense at center back.

Valentino Yuel (Unattached) The 27-year-old winger/forward has spent his entire club career in Australian football but following his release from Newcastle Jets it appears an African club is next with rumors of South African club Kaizer Chiefs’ interest. Scored on his debut in a 2-1 friendly defeat to Jordan in January.

Juma Genaro (Al Wadi- Sudan) The goalkeeper brings loads of experience from time spent in Sudanese football and started in South Sudan’s first ever international fixture in 2012, a 2-2 draw against Uganda. Genaro has played for top Sudanese club Al-Hilal and will be valuable in South Sudan’s attempts to upstage their Group G rivals.

Outlook

South Sudan were a very difficult team to break down and defeat during their 2021 AFCON qualifying campaign and even spoiled neighbor Uganda’s chances of qualifying by defeating them 1-0. The expectations are higher and the team is confident but they still struggle to generate goals. Expect the Bright Stars to once again play a spoiler role in the group but qualification may be an unrealistic goal at this point.

Prediction

  1. Mali
  2. Gambia
  3. Republic of Congo
  4. South Sudan

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