Yves Bissouma has emerged as one of the Premier League's most tenacious and reliable midfielders at Brighton & Hove Albion, thriving as the engine of a team pursuing a maiden finish in the top-half of the first division.
The 25-year-old has not featured for the South Coast club since a 3-2 away win over struggling Everton at the end of December, and whilst Brighton have achieved three successive draws in his absence, his industrious presence will be welcomed with open arms.
His unavailability has of course been because of his participation for Mali in African Cup of Nations; the squad have now crashed out of contention, and VAVEL Brighton look at how Bissouma and his nation fared.
Mali enjoyed a successful group phase as they looked to earn the first AFCON triumph in the country’s history.
Victories against Tunisia and Mauritania came either side of a 1-1 draw to The Gambia and earned the club top spot as they progressed to the knockout stages of the competition.
Bissouma played an important role throughout, displaying many of the qualities that have served him so well during his time on English soil.
After making a substitute appearance in the initial 1-0 victory over Tunisia, Bissouma suffered a somewhat mixed bag in the stalemate against Gambia – he made various attempts on goal throughout but was adjudged to have handled in the box in the dying moments.
The midfielder then started his second successive match as Mali comfortably defeated Tunisia 2-0, working tirelessly as his side claimed their second clean sheet in three group matches.
For all Mali’s good work established throughout the group phase, efforts were swiftly rendered futile as they suffered a shock penalty shootout loss to lowly Equatorial Guinea in the first knockout clash.
Mali had started the contest as clear favourites, and had opportunities to clinch the victory throughout, with VAR overturning a penalty before half time and Mohamed Camara missing a glaring opportunity shortly before the hour - served by Bissouma, who had slipped the ball delightfully into his path.
Ultimately, Mali's grip on the game loosened as time went on, and Equatorial Guinea grew in confidence towards the closing stages, ending with an offensive flurry that Mali did well to subdue.
Interestingly, though, Bissouma was withdrawn after 70 minutes, correlating with the dip in intensity and control that tipped the tie in the opposition's favour.
Albion's midfield maestro could only watch from the sidelines as Guinea indeed overcame his country and enter the quarter-finals in resounding fashion, continuing a fairytale run.
A shift in tactical role
Bissouma's performances for Brighton have left some of the Premier League's top outfits circling this past year, but for Mali, he could not replicate the same level of influence as they spluttered to a halt against Equatorial Guinea.
This is partly due to his shift in role; Bissouma excels as a relentless force in the centre of the pitch, recycling possession and providing a link between defence and attack.
Mali's head coach Mohamed Magassouba opted to field the player further forward and away from his deep-lying position that has served him so well.
Additionally, when Mali needed stability and quality to aid them in the closing stages of their final match at AFCON, he was withdrawn and the team subsequently exited the competition.
Bitter end to a big occasion
The African Cup of Nations is a tournament that players hold in high esteem, with the honour of lifting the continental trophy and bringing jubilation back to home soil considered the footballing pinnacle to most who participate.
The triumph has eluded Mali since the tournaments inception in 1957, and there will undoubtedly a sense of bitter regret amongst the squad with a glorious opportunity to finally claim the crown.
Granted, facing Senegal in the next phase would have been a tough task, Mali's toughest yet, but the path to the final was clear, the chance has been squandered, and Mali exit empty-handed once again.