Both teams were out to prove a point as their respective performances in their first outings were not symptomatic of their real skills.
If Mali woke up late in the game against host nation Angola in the competition opener and scored four goals to rally the local heroes, Algeria were laughable against Malawi and the humiliating 3-0 defeat may have been exactly what they needed after a seemingly endless celebration of their qualification to the World Cup in South Africa.
This match was already decisive as the loser could very well be eliminated after the Malawi - Angola game. Eagles' coach Stephen Keshi had to do without his superstar striker Frederic Kanoute at the beginning of the match as the Sevilla player was still in pain from an earlier injury. Nantes player Tenema Ndiaye would be his replacement tonight.
Juventus' Momo Sissoko, Barcelona's Seydou Keita and Real Madrid's Mahamadou Diarra were all present in the Mali midfield.
On the Algerian side, Rabah Saadane decided to put veteran Rafik Saifi on the bench while Karim Ziani became the play-maker, replacing an injured Mourad Meghni in their newly organized 4-2-3-1 formation. Abdelkader Ghezzal was alone up top for the Desert Foxes.
Early in the game, it seemed that Mali entered the encounter with a much better attitude than the Algerians. In the first minute, Moustapha Yatabare could have scored if the ball wasn't cleared by the Maghreb defense.
Two minutes later, Modibo Maiga sent a header straight into the arms of Chaouchi's from a set piece by Sissoko. Then Tenema Ndiaye decided to try to come back on his right foot after having dominated the Algerian defence and had a great chance at scoring while pretty much alone in the penalty area, but he lost the ball just as he was going to unleash a shot.
While trying to get out of their side of the pitch, Karim Ziani sent a ball Ghezzal's way but the pass ended up hitting the crossbar. From that point on, Algeria put a little more physical strength in their game in order to regain possession.
Unfortunately by doing so, the first victim was Seydou Keita who had to be taken out for a moment in the 13th minute. Once he came back on the pitch, the Eagles changed their formation with Diarra staying a little closer to his defence while Sissoko and Keita played higher up in order to counter a much more focused Algerian team.
Ditching his trademark 3-5-2 after the humiliation against Malawi, Saadane ordered players like Belhadji not to wander too high, away from their defensive tasks. The game seemed strangely entangled in the midfield when Karim Ziani let one of his famous crackers go from 20 meters after Ghezzal heeled him back the ball.
In the 42nd minute in a game that was growing increasingly stale and technically weak, Algeria won a free kick thanks to Bakary Soumare fouling Yacine Bezzazz badly enough to warrant a yellow card. On the ensuing free kick, Karim Ziani's delivery found Rafik Halliche who touched the ball with just enough pace to beat Soumbeila Diakite.
The first ten minutes after the half-time interval were dominated by the Eagles.
First Sissoko gave Yatabare an excellent pass only to see the Nantes player foul Laifaoui in order to get to it. Then Seydou Keita, in a very awkward position of back-up striker, hit the ball while turning only to see it countered by Halliche.
But in the 52nd minute, the Malians went very close as Adama Tamboura faked a pass while coming down the left side and hoped to catch Faouzi Chaouchi unfocused but the youngster was on form and sent it out of the pitch. Seeing that the left side of the Algerian defence was their weakness as Bougherra was often outpaced by Tamboura and his team-mates, Stephen Keshi decided to make replacements.
And in the 60th minute, Frederic Kanoute, although injured came on for Tenema Ndiaye while Mamadou Diallo replaced Moustapha Yatabare. In the new very offensive formation, Mali camped out in the Algerians' side of the pitch but the Green's defence stayed very solid, with only Ghezzal up top.
An exhausted Momo Sissoko was replaced by Lassana Fane. The Juventus player is still not his former self with the Eagles. But as his team, after 30 straight minutes of trying to score, the Paris-native was just out of it. Even with Kanoute motivating them, the Malians seemed to have wasted their best opportunities to score.
And the Algerian side decided to introduce their most experienced player, Rafik Saifi in the 80th minute to make sure that everyone stayed focused and calm in defence. Once he entered the game, Saifi and Ziani did their best to make sure the Eagles were outsmarted.
In the 88th minute, Karim Ziani sent a free-kick just over Diakite's post after Saifi was fouled.
It took until the 92nd minute for Faouzi Chaouchi to make his first mistake of the game. On a Maiga cross, the young 'keeper let the ball slip from his hands but fortunately for him Bougherra was there to clear the danger.
In the minute after his mistake, Algeria was liberated. After being humiliated by Malawi, the Desert Foxes are still in the running and will play the host nation last. While Mali seemed to be ready to pack and leave already.
Massaër Ndiaye, Goal.com