Continental middleweights Mali have made an incredible impact in four CAF Africa Cup of Nations appearances. The landlocked, largely desert west Africa country finished runners-up to Congo in 1972 and fourth in 1994, 2002 and 2004.

And former African Footballer of the Year, Zambian Kalusha Bwalya, rates the Eagles so highly that he included them among his potential winners of Ghana 2008, despite their inclusion in the toughest first-phase pool. Mali must face star-studded Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and Benin, who they drew with twice in qualifying, in a Sekondi-based Group B.

If the Malians can advance, another top-four finish could be in the offing for a team that boasts 2007 African Footballer of the Year finalists Mahamadou Diarra and Frederic Kanoute. Midfielder Diarra plays for Real Madrid, one of the most successful and famous football clubs in the world, while Kanoute is a key figure for another Spanish outfit, reigning two-time UEFA Cup winners Sevilla.

That is not where the talent ends. Adama Coulibaly, one of six France-based players in the Mali squad, is the defensive kingpin while hopes are high that Mamadou Diallo from Qatar Sport Club can emerge as a top-class striker.

If these players can find their rhythm, Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria could have their work cut out as Mali attempt to continue their impressive tradition in the Cup of Nations finals.