Kante and Keita - Mali's Special Ks

Mali owe their appearance in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in no small part to 'oldtimers' Cedric Kante and Seydou Keita.

"With Cedric we're the two veterans in the side, the rest are youngsters," conceded Keita, who like Kante is aged 32 and who like the captain has seen their international return rewarded with a last eight place.

Mali face co-hosts Gabon here on Sunday after taking the runners-up spot in Group D with Wednesday's 2-1 defeat of Botswana.

And despite all his club silverware Keita went berserk with joy when the final whistle finally blew on the other Group D match being played simultaneously up in Franceville on Wednesday night signalling Mali's certain qualification.

Keita, competing in his fifth Nations Cup, has won the UEFA Champions League, Spanish Cup, French Cup, and FIFA Club World Cup.

Now he wants to seize his chance of adding this major international title. "It's no contest (between the feeling of playing for club or country).

"Your country is something else, I never felt like that with Barcelona, Sevilla or Lens. It's not comparable. I've won everything, I've also lost everything...but I was under enormous pressure (on Wednesday). I can't explain how I felt after the game."

Keita, who scored the winner against Botswana, is aiming to match or better Mali's performance in 2004 when he helped the Eagles make it to the Nations Cup semi-finals in Tunisia.

Keita and Kante are the two most vulnerable members in the Mali squad on account of their age and the fact that they returned to the international fold after a summons from coach Alain Giresse. "I'm not going to say that we had everything to lose in returning, but...." conceded Kante, who is attached to Greek side Panathinaikos.

We came back to the squad in order to bring something to it, to help the young players and to help the country.
Mali's Cedric Kante

"We came back to the squad in order to bring something to it, to help the young players and to help the country but it has to result in something concrete. We were relieved to qualify. We've invested in this and we would be truly frustrated if we'd gone out in the first round."

Keita added: "I want to succeed in this with these young players something that I didn't succeed in doing with the others! It's huge to qualify. I didn't want to go home like that. I'm happy for the team and the country."

Reflecting on the role of his two talented thirty-somethings, Giresse said: "Kante and Keita have a role which represents their experience. The team needs experienced players..."

Mali's special Ks hope to make it to the last four and equal the performance Mali achieved in 2002 and in 2004 which Kante missed with injury.

Looking ahead to Sunday's clash with Gabon, Keita said: "They are playing in front of their fans. They'll have pressure but also the motivation with their supporters behind them. We have our chance."

Kante commented: "The advantage is that we know them well (Giresse coached Gabon before Gernot Rohr took over in 2010). The disadvantage is that they're playing at home and we'll have to be very strong to beat them."

He conceded that up to now Mali haven't produced a performance to match the enthusiasm of their fans. "We haven't played like we would have wanted but we're in the quarter-finals and lots of big teams who thought they would make it have been knocked out.

"We've displayed good spirit and it's that which can help us make it to the semi-finals. We have to play with our hearts."