Mauritania’s amazing climb up the FIFA rankings will be highlighted by the nation’s first match at the Africa Cup of Nations on Monday.
Corentin Martins’ side face off against Mali in Suez in a landmark occasion that will bring Mauritania to a standstill.
Just seven years ago, Mauritania were ranked as the world’s fourth-worst nation, but Martins – who took over in 2014 – has overseen constant improvement.
From 206th in the rankings, they now sit 103rd, and qualified for their first major tournament on the back of a solid defence and the occasional goals of Ismail Diakite.
Moulaye Ahmed Khalil will likely help Diakite lead Mauritania’s line, and the AS Gabes forward is relishing the challenge of a first AFCON campaign.
“The feeling is great, it’s the first time for Mauritania,” he told CAF’s official Twitter account.
“We’ve been waiting for this and thank God everything went well. The most important thing now is to qualify for the next round. Hopefully it will be a great match.”
Mauritania warmed up for the tournament with a 3-1 friendly win over Madagascar earlier this month, before they lost by the same scoreline to Benin.
They will, of course, be major outsiders against a Mali side boasting several players plying their trade in some of Europe’s top leagues.
Moussa Marega scored 21 goals in all competitions for Porto last term, including six in the Champions League, while Moussa Djenepo recently joined Southampton.
Mali, runners up in 1972, will be hoping to reverse patchy lead-up form, following a 1-1 draw against Cameroon with a 3-2 defeat to Algeria.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mali – Moussa Djenepo
All eyes in this fixture will be on Djjenepo, the speedy winger recently signed by Premier League outfit Southampton for a reported £14million fee, having scored 11 goals for Standard Liege last term.
Mauritania – Ismail Diakite
The 27-year-old has scored five goals in his last nine appearances for Mauritania, including three in his last two.
Of those three goals, two came in the crucial 2-1 win over Botswana that secured their tournament qualification.
KEY OPTA STATS
– Mali have never lost their opening game at an AFCON tournament (five wins, five draws)
– Seven of Mali’s last 10 AFCON games have ended in a draw, with six of them ending 1-1
– Mauritania are one of three teams making their AFCOn debut at this year’s tournament, alongside Burundi and Madagascar
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