Scouting report: Mali’s Bakary Sako

The first player to expose the defensive weakness of Chelsea right-back Branislav Ivanovic this season was Mali midfielder Bakary Sako. Sako scored and set up another goal as Crystal Palace became the first team to beat the English champions at Stamford Bridge this season.
Blessed with pace, occasional trickery and an eye for goal, Sako has emerged as Africa’s best attacking midfielder in the past two seasons. This weekend, at the Francistown Sports Complex, the Palace midfielder will face Botswana in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff.
Through observation and video analysis, Gazette Sport has taken a closer look at the prolific midfielder and the danger he could pose for Peter Butler’s side.
In modern football it is a cliché to mention a midfielder’s ability to play various positions but it  is worth noting that Sako is no different. The 27 year old can operate as a left winger and a central attacking midfielder or as a striker if need be.  This past weekend he was deployed as a lone striker as Palace beat Liverpool 2-1, Sako was used as an emergency striker due to his side’s injury problems in the striking department.
He also displayed his versatility  during his club’s 2-1 win over Chelsea in August, he started the game on the left and terrorized Ivanovic. In the second half he drifted into a central role and scored the first goal as he beat a trailing Cesar Azpiliqueta who was trying to keep with him and a static Gary Cahill who could only watch as Sako’s strike went past Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois.
Sako is the most prolific African midfielder in the past two seasons at club level, last term he scored 15 goals for Wolverhampton Wanderers and he has already scored twice for his new club, Palace. His tally is 17 goals since the 2014/2015 season, a return better than that of Yaya Toure (15 goals), Sadio Mane (16 goals) and Yacin Brahimi (12 goals).
The Mali player packs a powerful shot and he demonstrated it on several occasions this season with a well taken goal against Aston Villa on his debut. Last season, as a Wolves player, he scored numerous long range goals and free kicks to prove that he is capable of scoring all types of goals.
Bulky frames are a common feature of West African players and Sako always uses it to his advantage. He has quickly adapted to the physical nature of the English Premier League and will surely be a handful for the Zebras defenders and midfielders.
Sako has an impressive national team record, he has scored eight goals in 16 caps for Mali, he has a ratio of 0.5 goals per game at international level.