To those who do not follow African football on a regular basis, the players who are not in the Mali side for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations will be more notable than the players who are in the side. Frederic Kanoute, Momo Sissoko and Mahamadou Diarra -- three of the best players to ever come out of the country -- have either retired or have been dropped. Seydou Keita has arguably always been the most important player of all, but this is now his team. There is no debate.
Mali will almost certainly not win a very difficult Group D. They will be favorites to progress, but it would be nothing short of shocking if they were able to accumulate more points than Ghana, who are either the favorites or second favorites to win the tournament depending on who you ask. The other teams in Group D are surprising Botswana, who did brilliantly in qualifying despite a lack of big names, and Guinea, who have a number of players with extensive European experience.
Information on the team isn't exactly abundant, but their best player is a well-known quantity, as is their manager. Alain Giresse was an extremely successful player and turned Gabon into a respectable side that was competitive with the rest of Africa during his four-year tenure as the manager of that side.
Sissoko and Diarra are gone, but the country is loaded with similar players. There are no shortage of quality defensive or box-to-box midfielders with fantastic athleticism in this team. Between the age of Diarra and the form of Sissoko, they will lose very little. Keita is still an excellent player and will be one of the most accomplished players at this tournament. The biggest question stems from whether their group of forwards can replace what Kanoute did.
Mohamed Kalilou Traore and Modibo Maiga will likely start on the wings and will be strong points of the team, but center forward is a bit of a question mark. Cheick Diabate has finally started seeing regular playing time for Bordeaux and has a good record of six goals in 13 appearances for Mali. His scoring record, regular play for Bordeaux and fantastic size indicate that he has the tools for success, but he's not a regular scorer in Ligue 1 and has yet to prove he can be one at this level.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-3)
GK Oumar Sissoko, LB Cedric Kante, CB Adama Tamoura, CB Mohamed Fofana, RB Drissa Diakite, CM Samba Sow CM Seydou Keita CM Mahamane Traore, LF Modibo Maiga, RF Mohamed Kalilou Traore, CF Cheick Diabate
Seydou Keita: This team is deep in midfield and respectable in attack, but the FC Barcelona man is the captain and the key to the side. Even though he's played as a defensive-minded player for most of his club career, he's played in a more attacking role for his country, something that's become relatively common with talented African two-way midfield players. Mahamane Traore and Bakaye Traore are decent attacking players as well, so he might be playing a little deeper than he has in the past, but he'll get forward if the game requires it.
Eliminated in Quarterfinals by Group C winner: Mali is a solid side, but they aren't better than Ghana and they're probably not better than whoever gets through Group C. Tunisia and Morocco aren't obviously superior to Mali, but if one of those teams is able to do enough against the other and hosts Gabon to finish top of their group, they'll probably be favorites to defeat Mali.