South Africa boss Gordon Igesund says his side’s opponents are the stronger team. No, no, it’s yours, claims Mali coach Patrice Carteron.
Perhaps contemporary pre-match etiquette demands modesty. After all it didn’t hamper Zambia last year.
But the truth is neither side can consider themselves out-and-out favourites. Though by most objective criteria, 42-year-old Carteron might be overplaying the humility.
"Mali are a talented team with very good players. They play differently from the other sides we have met so far,” says Igesund. “They like to slow things down, they like to knock the ball around.
"The Malians are all big boys. I watched them draw against the Democratic Republic of Congo and all 11 are tall. We have to use the ball well, keep it on the ground, get behind them,” he adds.
South Africa goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands echoes his boss. "It’s going to be a difficult game. They’re a good team with great players. They’re a big team too, physically. I think it will be a physical game. We’ve got to make sure we stick to our own game plan and play the football we know we can play and try to stay out of the physicality battle.”
South Africa’s defence was criticised for its performance during the 2-2 draw with Morocco in the final Group A game on 27 January. It needed a late equaliser from the defender Siyabonga Sangweni to salvage the point that won them the group.
Twenty-nine-year-old Sandilands adds: “At set pieces we’ll have to be very awake and just make sure that we’re well disciplined. I think we have what it takes to progress.”
Carteron believes that too.
"Everyone expects South Africa to reach the semi-finals," he says. "We have nothing to lose and will try to upset the home team.”
That outcome would disappoint the sell-out 60,000 crowd at the Moses Mabhida Stadium but the mission is very possible. Mali have the ubergarlanded former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita in their ranks. He now minds the middle of the park in the Chinese Super League for Dalian Aerbin.
But for four years his muckers were Andres Iniesta and Xavi at the Camp Nou. That association with Pep Guardiola and the hombres ended with 14 trophies in his cabinet including three La Liga titles and two Uefa Champions League crowns.
“It’s not only him,” warns midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi. “They have good quality players throughout. They’re big boys but we have to stick to our game plan and approach the match in a positive frame of mind.”
Carteron took over from his French compatriot Alain Giresse after he led the Eagles to third place at last year’s tournament. It was Mali ’s best performance at a Cup of Nations since they finished fourth in 2002.
The evidence says that Africa’s third-best team behind Côte d’Ivoire and Algeria should turn over a side 60 places beneath them in the Fifa world rankings.
But it doesn’t work like that at the Cup of Nations.