Mali beat Niger 1-0 in Group B’s second match on Sunday at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth. The Eagles captain Seydou Keita handed his side the hard-fought victory five minutes to before the end of the encounter.
Mali are participating in their eighth Africa Cup of Nations finals while Niger are appearing for the second time in the competition.
The Eagles attempted to intimidate the Mena early in the match, with six-foot forward Cheick Diabate of French side Bordeaux unleashing two close-range strikes that Niger goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly confidently palmed away, as his defenders stood firm to keep the backline safe from palpable damage.
The Malians dominated play through the half hour mark, with another goal chance falling to Keita, but he crashed his volley against Diabate, who was waiting in the box to conclude the action.
The Mena were still struggling to get a foothold in the game as the first half wore on. The group, mostly composed of home based players, chose to apply an extensive defending formula in a bid to thwart the Eagles’ efforts, but suffered agonizing domination in the process.
Despite their overwhelming control of the midfield and superior ball possession, Mali were unable to open the scoring, as their efforts were restricted to some aimless shots delivered by Diabate, Sigamary Diarra of Ajaccio and Kalilou Traore.
Niger maintained their combative mood throughout the first half while Mali kept pushing in search of close-range faults. However, none of the ensuing free kicks went on target as the score stood at a goalless draw by half time.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron chose to bring more pace to his side in the second half by substituting Cheick Fantamady Diarra with Mahamadou Samassa of Serie A side Chievo, which almost immediately paid off when the 26-year-old cut in from the left but dragged his effort wide.
The Eagles were still on top of proceedings after the break and could have broken the deadlock in the 54th minute, but Keita’s powerful long-range effort was breath-takingly parried by Kassaly, leaving the former Barcelona midfielder ruing the missed chance.
As the Nigeriens continued to hold up against the pressure, Mali brought in Paris Saint Germain defensive midfielder Mohamed Sissoko, who returned to the outfit late last year after nearly three years of absence. The former Liverpool and Juventus player brought more intensity to his side, but they soon settled in the game’s regular kick and move action, without any visible ambition in front of goals.
The Mena began to grow in confidence near the last quarter of the game and had one of their best goal chances in the 72nd minute when team captain Moussa Maazou’s header from a corner kick floated slightly above the crossbar.
Mali’s response was immediate. An interplay between Samba Diakite of Queens Park Rangers and Keita saw the Dalian Aernin player blasting a strike that ricocheted off the crossbar.
Niger’s resistance began to wane from fatigue as the Malians continued to press. Keita opened the scoring in the 84th minute after collecting a loose ball during a goalmouth scramble and pushing it softly to the side of Kassaly, who was too crowded to see the incoming danger.
The scoreline remained unchanged at 1-0 in favour of Mali until the final whistle. The Eagles become the first team at the 2013 Afcon to bag all three points and are now leaders of Group B after Ghana and DR Congo ended their faceoff in a 2-2 draw.