Like two teenage boys, Seydou Keita and captain Cedric Kante led the Mali team in celebration at Stade de l’Amite in Libreville upon the final whistle in the Ghana versus Guinea match 500km away in Franceville.

It was huge relief as the 1-1 coupled with their 2-1 victory over Botswana had sent them through to the quarterfinals where they were to meet Gabon.

Tunisia’s Sabeur Khalifa is challenged by Lloyd Palun of Gabon during their Africa Cup of Nations match in Franceville, Gabon. PHOTO: Reuters

Draped in Mali flags, they ran to their hundreds of fans who had drummed up support for The Eagles as they struggled to break down a resillient Botswana until a late curling finish by Seydou Keita settled nerves.

It is the kind of support they will need in plenty in a sea of home fans who literally lifted Gabon when beating Morocco 3-2 at the same venue almost a week ago.

Keita, 32, and defender Ousmane Berthe are not oblivious to the enormity of the fans support but insists it could work either way, saying: “They are playing in front of their fans. They’ll have pressure but also the motivation with their supporters behind them. However, we, too, have our chance to succeed.”

Berthe, who plays for South African side Jomo Cosmos, told Fifa.com that: “There is a lot of pressure on Gabon because they are at home and they have to win. For us, there is very little pressure. We can play our own game and if we score, then there will be even more pressure on Gabon.”

The clash tonight has also been billed as the re-union of old friends. Gabon coach Gernot Rohr played with Mali’s Alain Giresse at Bordeaux. And in a twist of fate, Giresse was the coach of Gabon at Angola 2010 having spent four years with the Panthers. And now their paths cross again.

“I met Alain at a wedding a couple of months ago and we joked about our paths crossing in the quarter-finals,” Rohr disclosed before training on Thursday.

“We played together in Bordeaux, he’s a friend, and now the competition has thrown us together. He is facing his old side and his old fans, but now I’m coach of Gabon and he’s coach of Mali,” Rohr told AFP.

Giresse is still held in reverence here in Gabon and goalkeeper Didier Ovono said: Panthers’ captain Didier Ebang Ovono said: “He’s the ‘Papa’ to all of us. We’re in contact with him all the time. He helped many of us find clubs in Europe. He understood that for us to get better, we had to play at a high level. He knows us all; he knows our qualities and our faults.”

By Robin Toskin in Libreville-Gabon, The Standard

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