Amid bloodshed and Togo’s withdrawal, hosts Angola search for a win in the African Cup of Nations opener with Mali

Angola v Mali, African Cup of Nations, January 10, 2010

Angola 7/5; Draw 9/4; Mali 12/5

“It’s an act of barbarism while we are here to celebrate African football.” – Togo coach Hubert Velud.

In the blink of an eye the 2010 African Cup of Nations (ACN) was plunged into crisis on Friday as a despicable terrorist act saw the Togolese national team bus come under machine gun fire leaving the driver dead and several injured including two of the playing squad.

Saturday, Togo decided to withdraw themselves from the tournament, leaving hosts Angola with a logistical nightmare amid accusations that the home nation have failed to deal with security issues in their boarders. Togo coach Velud spoke candidly when saying “in these situations you become a bit paranoid, you doubt everything. We don’t feel that the authorities are taking this very seriously. I don’t mean that they want to hush up the matter, but almost.”

With the ACN in disarray, Angola prepare to face the talented Malians in the opening match of the competition this weekend, with both teams eager to get off to a winning start.

Angola are a competent team, capable of the spectacular at times, but not regarded as a serious contender for the ultimate crown as, by rights, the home nation failed to even qualify for the tournament. Unusually, the Black Antelopes were scheduled to participate in qualifying which doubled up not only as the tournament to decide the contestants at the 2010 African Cup of Nations, but also the World Cup to be held later in the year.

The surprise participants at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany were hugely disappointing in their qualifying section against supposedly relatively weak opposition. Perhaps complacent in the knowledge that their berth in the African Cup of Nations was safe as hosts, Angola failed to perform.

It was the Angolan away-form that really counted against them, as although they defeated bottom side Niger on the road, they went down to a 3-2 loss in Benin and 3-1 loss in Uganda, who finished on the same points total as Angola. Home form was significantly better as they won two and drew the other qualification match, so Angolan fans will be hoping their side can replicate that as they go into the first ever hosting of the African Cup of Nations.

Jose Manuel’s Angola side are best when going forward, with Flavio the spearhead of the hosts attacking player. A clever player with the ability to create and score himself, the midfield schemer will be key to Angola’s hopes of starting the tournament with a bang. (Angola are 6/1 to win both halves.)

Elsewhere, Benfica forward Pedro Mantorras is a more than capable striker with 174 goals in 320 games whilst in Portugal, while former Manchester United forward Manucho, who now turns out for Real Valladolid in Spain, will be looking to repeat his spellbinding form shown as the previous tournament in 2008. (Angola are 14/5 to score in both halves.)

Mali, who missed out on qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, are a team in transition that boasts a sprinkling of high-quality seasoned stars.

The experienced triumvirate at the top of the team list are Sevilla’s Frederic Kanoute, Juventus’s Mohamed Sissoko and Real Madrid’s Mahamadou Diarra. Most nations in the world who beg to have three such talents in their teams, but Mali’s lists of talents continue with one of the most exciting emerging talents on the continent, Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita.

In defence, Mali have only called up five recognised defenders, and one who is likely to have an important job to do will be Souleymane Diamoutene. The centre-back has spent his entire career in Italy since arriving at the age of 16 at Udinese . He has since developed into an outstanding defender, currently on loan to the surprise package in the Italian top flight, Bari. (Mali are 12/5 to keep a clean sheet.)

If Angola were under pressure to succeed in their home tournament before Friday, that was nothing compared to the present focus of the world’s glare on the country after the horrendous acts on the Togo team. How Angola respond on the field is a big question mark, but if Mali can maintain their composure in what will likely be a tight encounter (5/8 to be under 2.5 goals), they could snatch victory.

101predicts: Angola 0 – Mali 1 (8/1)

Angola 7/5; Draw 9/4; Mali 12/5

Full match odds here.