THE stakes could not be higher for Ghana and Mali when they clash in a crunch Group B Orange Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) soccer showdown at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium tonight.
Ghana, the hot group favourites, will be desperate to get on the winning track after they stuttered to a 2-2 draw against DR Congo in their opener.
Tonight, the talent-laden Ghanaians will be up against a Mali side whose tails will be up after they registered a 1-0 win over Niger in their opening game.
On Sunday, 20 000 fans turned up for the opening games and another big attendance is expected tonight for what could be an enthralling double-header.
Ghana and Mali, the two top-ranked teams, get the action under way at 5pm, and Niger face DR Congo in the late game at 8pm.
The final games in the group will both kick off at 7pm on Monday when DR Congo face Mali at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban and Niger clash with Ghana at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Even though they failed to beat DR Congo in their opener, there was much to admire about Ghana and many feel they still have what it takes to go all the way to the final in Johannesburg on February 10.
Ghana skipper Asamoah Gyan, who missed a gilt-edged chance against Congo, still feels his team can progress to the knockout stage of the competition.
Gyan insists the side can still go on to end their 31-year wait for an African title and victory over Mali tonight will be vital if their dream is to come true.
"In tournaments like these things happen but what we have to do is to go and correct our mistakes and make sure we win our second game against Mali.”
Black Stars coach Akwasi Appiah is hoping rising star Christian Atsu provides the spark his team need to beat Mali in their "winner takes all” showdown.
Appiah has predicted that the hugely talented Atsu will start to find his rhythm against Mali.
It was felt Atsu did not live up to expectations in the game against DR Congo and he will have to lift his game several notches tomorrow.
One of the new breed of stars making his Afcon debut, Atsu might hold to the key to whether Ghana progress through to the quarter-finals.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron says his team are ready for Ghana after a morale-boosting win against Niger in their first group match.
Mali captain and veteran midfielder Seydou Keita scored the only goal in the 84th minute in his team’s win.
"It was a difficult game against a very defensive team like Niger,” Carteron said.
"But I’m happy for the players because they have worked hard and this win will boost confidence for the next match against Ghana.”
Meanwhile, Niger coach Gernot Rohr expressed satisfaction with his team’s performance even though they ended up on the losing side.
"We tried our best against a top team like Mali. My players have great fighting spirit and big hearts, so you can be happy even when they lose.”
In the second game, DR Congo will be confident they can take a big step towards the knockout phase by beating Niger.
DR Congo coach Claude le Roy insists Ghana are still favourites to win the Nations Cup after watching them draw with his team.
West Ham striker Modibo Maiga will feature for Mali tonight after he missed the opening group game against Niger.
"Maiga is fully fit and will play against Ghana. It’s a big boost for us,” team manager Amadou Cisse said.