Mali captain Seydou Keita led by example scoring the only goal of the match to aid his side to a lone goal victory over Niger in their Group B clash on Sunday at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
Keita capitalised on a blunder by Niger goalie Daouda Kassaly to nod home the match winner seven minutes from time, to hand his side the maximum points in the closely contested encounter.
The match was heading for a stalemate with Niger defending gallantly before the veteran midfielder proved his worth with the touch that took them to the top of the group. Les Aigles rest comfortably at the summit of Group B on three points, two points richer than DR Congo and Ghana with Niger at the bottom pointless.
The game was characterised by a handful of scoring opportunities especially in the first half which had the Malians the more offensive. Despite adopting a defensive approach, Niger appeared dangerous on the counter and in the 22nd minute launched a tirade of attacks into the Malian half, which they eventually survived.
Mali were better in the second half with Keita coming close on a number of occasions. The introduction of Mohamed Sissoko and Samba Diakite added some bite into the attacks of last year's bronze winners.
On 53 minutes, Kassaly scored full marks by tipping away Keita's goalbound effort to the dismay of all.
Minutes later, it was Niger captain Moussa Maazou who was unlucky to see his header miss narrowly in what turned out to be the closest the Mena came at scoring.
It was Mali all the way and on 76 minutes, the crossbar denied Mali the opener after a low drive from Keita gazed it. Seven minutes later, Keita would afford a smile after Kassaly failed to make a firm grab of an aerial ball. The ball fell to his feet and he had the easiest task of tapping home through a sea of Niger defenders.
Mali next play Ghana on January 24 whilst Niger battles it out with DR Congo on the same day, both at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.