Many of Mali's big names have moved on. Some moved on by choice by retiring from international play and some were pushed out of the national team picture, but for whatever reason, Frederic Kanoute, Momo Sissoko and Mahamadou Diarra are all gone. That leaves Mali with just Seydou Keita, the unquestioned leader and star of the team as they head into the Africa Cup of Nations.
It is not as if Keita needed some departures to become a leader with Mali. With five Africa Cup of Nations tournaments under his belt and now three and a half years at Barcelona, Keita is as experienced as they come and would have been a leader for this Mali team regardless, but the absences do throw a little more pressure on him to perform at the top of his game.
Whereas Keita is asked to played a bit more defensive in the midfield for Barcelona, for Mali he is asked to get forward more often and be a true box-to-box midfielder. That makes him the key player for the entire team, tracking back to tackle, but also be the primary link from the midfield to their three-man frontline. This isn't new for Keita. He's been asked to be a complete midfielder for Mali for years now, but now he'll be doing so without as much help, especially up top.
Keita will be asked to do more for Mali and unfortunately, he'll be asked to do it without being completely match fit. Between La Liga's winter break and Barcelona's glut of midfielders, Keita played just once since December 15 before joining up with Mali. Camp with Mali should help get him as fit as possible, but nothing can get someone match fit quite like playing in actual matches.
Fit or not, Keita will be heavily leaned upon. Whether he can shoulder the load could be the determining factor in Mali's ability to advance from the group stage, which they should do, and maybe even get a win or two in the knockout stages. It may be unfair to ask so much of Keita, but the reality is that it is his team now. While the team does have other quality players, such as Mohamed Kalilou Traore and Modibo Maiga, as Keita goes, so will Mali.
National Team: Mali
Club Team: FC Barcelona