Port Elizabeth — Mali were always going to have the upper hand over Niger in their opening game at the African Nations Cup but the laboured manner in which they finally clinched victory will be of concern.
"Les Aigles" were bronze medal winners at the last championship and expected to pose a considerable challenge for the 2013 finals but made heavy weather of overcoming a spirited opponent with a lone goal in the Group B encounter.
Technically Mali were much the better side and, because Niger sat back, dominated all the possession.
But they will be concerned they did not create enough chances and left it so late to grab their success.
In the end they profited not from their own enterprise but because Niger made a calamitous error, with goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda dropping an innocuous-looking cross and allowing Seydou Keita to tuck away the ball six minutes from the end.
Keita had been at the heart of much that Mali did on the offensive but was more than ably supported by lookalike Mahamane Traore, who proved the real midfield workhorse. It was easy to see why he was picked over Samba Diakite to start the game at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
Mali’s wealth in the midfield became even more evident when it came time for Keita to push forward as coach Patrice Calderon brought on both Momo Sissoko and Diakite in the second half.
But they are going to need to be sharper in attack, where they lack experience, if they are to reach the last four again.
Cheick Tidiane Diabate was among the top scorers at the last Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon but is still inexperienced, while Sigamarry Diarra and Cheick Fantamady Diarra are even newer to the international game.
It is going to be much tougher on Thursday when they next take on Ghana in what could be the key fixture of the group.
Niger will be up against the Democratic Republic of Congo on the same day at the impressive stadium in Port Elizabeth, seeking to end their losing streak in the finals tournament.
But they do not have much in their armoury to suggest they will be able to arrest that run. They played a patient defensive game against Mali, sitting back with most of their players behind the ball and seeking to catch their opponents on the counter attack.
It almost worked, for they held out for 84 minutes and even had a few credible chances of their own. But there is no accounting for errors that ultimately proved their undoing.