For Mali, this is becoming a habit: win the first group game narrowly, lose to Ghana, do just enough in the third match to get through and set up a quarter-final against the hosts. What they did in Libreville a year ago, when they beat Gabon on penalties, they will have to do again on Saturday as they face a newly enthused South Africa in Durban.
That quarter-final – a year ago to the weekend – was characterised by tears. Tears from the Gabonese for the shattering of their dream as half the government looked on from the stands, and tears from the Mali captain Seydou Keita as he described the crisis in his country. Since then, of course, the situation has deteriorated, with an attempted coup by the army followed by further incursions from Islamist separatists in the north-east and then French intervention. If Monday's reports that the historic library in Timbuktu has been burned are true, that is a devastating blow against the heart of Malian culture.
Keita has become a great spokesman for his country and the Mali national team is fortunate to have such an eloquent speaker as captain. His ghastly familiarity with discussing the war in post-match press conferences keeps his emotions in check these days, but there is no doubt how deeply affected he is by the trouble back home. Nor is there any doubt that the conflict has provided les Aigles with additional motivation and a clear sense of their responsibilities.
Mali had been quietly impressive in beating Niger in their opening game, the 1-0 scoreline – the winner bundled in eight minutes from time after a goalkeeping error – scarcely reflecting their superiority. Against Ghana, though, they had lost 1-0 and, while the coach, Patrice Carteron, was justified in believing the Ghana goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda should have been sent off early, that did not explain his side's flatness.
That left Mali needing a draw against the DR Congo of Claude Le Roy, who had made it through the group stage in each of his six previous tournaments. DRC had been vibrant but open in drawing 2-2 with Ghana, then scratchy and ineffective as Niger picked up their first Cup of Nations point by holding them to a 0-0 draw. For about 20 minutes on Monday night, DRC looked like the side of the Ghana game.
Lomana LuaLua hit the post after 20 seconds and Yves Diba Ilunga was tripped in the box by Momo Sissoko after 35. Dieumerci Mbokani slammed in the penalty and DRC held the initiative. But the defensive inadequacies that had been exposed by Ghana were evident again. There was no individual to blame for the Mali equaliser, rather a general lack of bite that first allowed Modibo Maïga to win possession, then permitted the left-back Adama Tamboura to bundle his way to the goalline and cross and finally failed to close the forward Mamadou Samassa as he knocked the ball in.
DRC rather lost their way after that and the game descended into scrappiness. Trésor Mputu, who had started on the bench because of a knee injury, drew an excellent low save from the goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa (confusingly, there are two Mamadou Samassas in the Mali squad: the goalkeeper, who plays for Guingamp, and his older cousin, the forward who plays for Chievo), but Mali always seemed to have the edge and hit the post through both Kalilou Traoré and Cheik Diabaté in the closing minutes.
Keita confirmed the squad had chosen to accept smaller bonuses for making the quarter-finals than had been agreed before the tournament, with the difference being diverted to the war effort. "The country is in the process of recapturing the north, and people are starting to lift their heads," he said. "This qualification will also give a lot of joy to our country. Giving hope to the country has been priceless. There is a crisis in Mali and I did my best to give hope to those who are suffering. We have made an effort to help, but money doesn't matter. You can't imagine what it means to play for Mali at this time. I told my government they could reduce our bonuses. My priority is to play for my country."
After a fairly low-key start, played out in the usual half-empty stadiums of a Cup of Nations, Carteron is relishing a quarter-final against South Africa in a packed Moses Mabhida. "The pressure will be on them," said the former Sunderland defender. "We will take pleasure in it. The stadium will be full and we will enjoy it."
Keita knows that the atmosphere can hardly be more fervent than in Libreville last year and he must know too that this South Africa side, impressive as they were against Angola, looked shaky when the pressure was on in the opening game against Cape Verde and then played with an odd mixture of panic and inspiration to steal a draw from a self-destructing Morocco.
"Bafana are a good team," he said. "As the hosts they will have a lot more pressure on them, but they will also have the public behind them. That will give them ambition and help them to play above themselves. But we're relaxed and we don't fear them. We have a good chance of beating Bafana if we play as well as we did tonight. It's 50/50."