Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah claims that he is relishing the tactical battle with his Mali counterpart Patrice Carteron.
The two sides meet on Thursday in the second round of games in Group B in Port Elizabeth.
Mali go into the encounter as group leaders following their 1-0 win over Niger on Sunday. Ghana, by contrast, need to rekindle their confidence after letting slip a two goal lead to draw 2-2 with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Mali have a good team,” said Appiah on the eve of the clash. “They are one of the few teams that won their first game and that shows they are a good side. So we have to go out there and give one of our best games.”
Ghana came into the tournament as one of the favourites along with Côte d’Ivoire and the defending champions Zambia. The Black Stars have been often tipped for greatness ever since their surge to the semi-finals on home soil five years ago.
They confirmed their promise by reaching the final in Angola in 2010 only to be beaten by the all conquering Egyptians.
Consequently their loss in the semi-finals to Zambia in Gabon and defeat in the third-place play off to Mali were considered as setbacks.
Ghana was led last year by Goran Stevanovic while Mali was under the aegis of former France international Alain Giresse.
Appiah, like Giresse’s successor, will be keen to prove his worth to expectant publics.
“The players are determined to work harder than they have before,” added Appiah, himself a former Ghana international. “They’ll be more tactically disciplined, making sure they have full concentration on the pitch up to the end.”
Appiah identified that loss of focus as the key reason for their capitulation against DRC.
But it could well have been insider information.
DRC – here at the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2006 – are led by the former Ghana coach Claude Leroy. He steered Ghana to third place in 2008 and was responsible for the emergence of players such as Asamoah Gyan and John Paintsil. If anyone knew their weaknesses it was the 64-year-old Frenchman.
Appiah appears keen not to have structural limitations so saliently exposed anew.
“Patrice [Carteron] will assess the Ghana team," he says. "I’ve had a lot of information on them and I was able to watch their game against Niger. It’s important to plan our own strategy.
"Sometimes you may plan your tactics to suit what you’ve seen and you get on the pitch and find a different strategy has been planned. On saying that you need to organise yours so that no matter what their tactics are, yours are good enough to overcome them.”
And Ghana will have to surmount Mali if they are to have any chance of lifting their first continental title since 1982 when they were led to their fourth title by the legendary Charles Kumi Gyamfi.
Those glory days loom tantalisingly close and yet seem to be receding ever farther with previously considered minnow nations inserting huge spanners in the works.
Losing to Zambia in the semis in Bata last year was certainly not in the grand plan and neither was a stalemate with the DRC.
“After the draw we did some psyching up of the players,” Appiah said. “I talked to them one-to-one and then you look at their behaviour on and off the pitch. You can see that everyone has forgotten about the first match and that they’re looking to the second game.”
None more so than 22-year-old Wakaso Mubarak. He’s at his first Africa Cup of Nations and after starting the game against the DRC, the Espanyol midfielder will expect to be in the line-up for the crunch against Mali. He’ll also be facing the trophy-laden maestro that is Seydou Keita.
The 33-year-old, who’s representing his country in his sixth Africa Cup of Nations, now ploughs the midfield furrows for the Chinese Super League side Dalian Aerbin. But those pastures have come after four glittering years at Barcelona during which he won two Uefa Champions League titles and three La Liga crowns.
Keita made his first appearance in the final 16 in 2002 when Mubarak was effectively learning to tie his own boot laces.
Is the Ghanaian tyro daunted?
“I played against Keita in Spain and he’s a normal player for me,” sniffs Mubarak. “Although he is a good player who has had a lot. What the Ghana team needs to do is concentrate on our own form. Obviously we need to look at the Malians but we need to focus on ourselves.”
The spotlight will sear on a match that could secure passage for Mali if they win and thereby plunge Ghana into a precarious state.
The Malian midfielder Samba Diakité claims the pressure will overwhelm Ghana.
“They’re going to feel it," he says. "They’ve got lots of new players in the squad. Many are at the tournament for the first time. Last year they were one of the favourites and they know that if they lose to us, then that’s virtually it for them.”
But the defeat option isn’t in the Appiah plan.
“I’ve told the players to think about what happens in the games and not on outside matters and things that will bring their spirits down,” he insists. “I believe that they will not have any pressures and that they’ll go out and you will see a different Ghana.”