Port Elizabeth — Mali left it late to grab victory but in the end proved too strong for Niger and won the first three point haul of the African Nations Cup.
The 1-0 win at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Sunday ensured top place in the group after Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo had drawn the opening group match 2-2.
Seydou Keita provided the goal in a man-of-the-match performance, sweeping home a 84th minute winner after an awful blunder by goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda.
The big Niger goalkeeper let slip a cross by Fousseiny Diawara which fell perfectly at the feet of Keita just when it seemed Niger might be able to hold on for a hard-fought draw.
Instead they continued their losing run at the competition. However, they were never expected to prove as resistant as they did. They might have even snuck something just before Keita’s goal when Moussa Maazou put his header wide of target and Mohamed Soumaila scuffed a good chance.
But overall Mali were far the classier side and always looked as if they would force a breakthrough. In the end, though, they would have been relieved more than exultant over their narrow win.
Daouda had proven shaky throughout the game when trying to deal with the high balls, and a calamity was waiting to happen. But it will be heartbreaking that it struck so late in the game, when Niger were on the cusp of forcing a draw.
Mahamane Traore and Mahamadou Ndiaye had the best two first half chances for Niger and in the second half Momo Sissoko’s entry to the pitch added more bite. It was his first international in three years and just his fourth game at any level this season.
Niger provided periods of feisty play, particularly from Modibo Sidibe in attack but will be disappointed with the contribution of towering captain Moussa Mazzou.