Friday’s match between France and Mali is shaping up to be an intriguing encounter. No fewer than five members of the Malian U-20 squad ply their trade in French leagues, with Ibrahima Diallo playing for Auxerre, Boubacar Sylla turning out for Chateauroux and the trio of Kalifa Traore, Kalifa Coulibaly and Adama Traore all at Paris Saint-Germain.
Les Bleuets, in turn, feature several players of west African descent. Captain Gueida Fofana has mixed Malian and Guinean origins, while Gilles Sunu has Togolese ancestry and Kalidou Koulibaly has Senegalese roots. Jonathan Ligali is of Beninese descent, while Cedric Bakambu has links to the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. In short, the match represents a rich melting pot of French and African talent that should produce an attractive spectacle for the fans in Cali.
Despite these similarities, the sides have very different playing styles and contrasting FIFA U-20 World Cup ambitions. Les Bleuets are composed, dangerous going forward and strong at the back, and as reigning European champions, elimination at this early stage would be a bitter pill to swallow. Mali are altogether more rugged and unpredictable, particularly in attack, but their two opening defeats have left them with little hope of reaching the knockout stages.
France-Mali, Friday 5 August, Cali, 20.00 (local time)
On the face of it, the stakes are the same for France and Mali as both can still qualify for the last 16. However, with two defeats already to their name, the Eagles face a near-impossible task and will be looking above all to leave the tournament on a high. Les Bleuets, on the other hand, recorded a confidence-boosting 3-1 victory over Korea Republic in their second match after a disappointing 4-1 opening defeat by Colombia. A win for Francis Smerecki’s side would all but secure their place in the next round, while a draw would also leave them with a good chance of progressing.
When asked to choose between second place in the group and qualification as one of the best third-placed teams, Smerecki’s response was simply “qualification!” Mali coach Sekou Diallo was left crestfallen after his side’s 2-0 loss to Colombia, but he has not given up all hope. “With two defeats from two matches, we’re in a bad position. But you never know,” he said.
Both sides have avoided injuries so far, with France also free of suspensions for Friday’s match. Mali, however, will have to make do without the suspended Kalifa Traore, who received his marching orders against Colombia. And given coach Diallo’s anger at his side’s display against the hosts, there will almost certainly be other changes to the Eagles’ starting XI.
0 – The number of times Mali had lost their first two matches at a FIFA U-20 World Cup before this, their fourth finals appearance. It is also the number of goals Sakou Diallo’s men have scored at Colombia 2011 to date.
Sekou Diallo, Mali coach: “Against France, it’s quite simply our last chance. We have to take that chance if we are to have a hope of finishing among the best third-placed teams. But our hopes are slim.”
Francis Smerecki, France coach: “I don’t know if we’re on the right track ahead of the Mali game. All I know is that we’ve identified the things that didn’t work against Colombia. We’re a close-knit group but we were shaken by the opening defeat. We recovered quickly and I hope we can find a way through to the last 16.”