Bafana face a tall order
ONE could argue that Bafana will not be confronting Mali on Saturday, but France.
Nine of the Eagles' starting 11 were either born in France or grew up there, and were trained in French academies. And only five of [French] coach Patrice Carteron's 23-man squad began their professional careers in Mali.
So it shouldn't surprise us that Seydou Keita and friends play a distinctly Camembert-scented brand of football.
They defend rigorously, and they mount controlled, patient attacks that mix aerial and ground passing. They have little appetite for spontaneity and chaos, and might become unsettled if Bafana force a messy, frenetic contest.
Aside from their Gallic style, the other thing you can't fail to notice about Mali is that they are huge.
Only two players in their entire squad stand under 1.83m tall in their socks.
Keeper Mamadou Samassa of Guingamp, not to be confused with his cousin and striker team-mate of the same name, stands 1.97m tall.
He collects swirling crosses with the ease of a man picking melons off a supermarket shelf.
By contrast, only two members of Bafana's starting line-up are 1.83m or taller - Siyabonga Sangweni and Bongani Khumalo.
The height gap obviously demands that Bafana keep the ball down, and try to exploit whatever agility advantage they might have with quick, short exchanges that will force the big Eagles to change direction on the hop.
May Mahlangu and Tokelo Rantie cooked up the former's goal against Morocco with exactly that kind of snappy geometry.
And if Bafana have one player with enough raw acceleration to hurt the Malians, it's Thuso Phala. The jet-heeled Platinum Stars winger was an unfashionable selection by Gordon Igesund, but in the past two games Phala has all but silenced the media flak that greeted his inclusion in the starting line-up.
He runs good lines and works like a madman.
With any luck, Phala's industry and pace should help to push back Mali's rampaging left back Adama Tamboura, who created Mamadou Samassa's goal with a raid to the Congolese byline on Monday night.
Some are questioning whether Katlego Mphela looks like a striker right now - and arguing for the selection of fit-again Lehlohonolo Majoro as the starting centre forward. The Chiefs ace showed fire and composure against Angola, and Igesund might consider giving his club partnership with Bernard Parker another whirl.
If so, Igesund might think about using Mphela wide on the left, in the place of Rantie. The Sundowns man has the requisite pace to burn Mali if Mahlangu, for example, angles a pass behind their big, 32-year-old right back Fousseni Diawara. And Mphela's pedigreed right boot is probably better qualified than Rantie's to find Majoro - or to net inside the far post after cutting into the box.
Keita believes the match is a 50/50 scenario, with his side boasting better quality and Bafana home ground advantage.
But he wasn't in the emotional furnace that was Moses Mabhida Stadium on Sunday night. If the Durbanites crank up the spirit even higher, Keita may find himself revising that ratio in the opening minutes.