Seydou Keita proved to be the talisman for Mali again with a late winner as they emerged the first victors at the Africa Cup of Nations finals, beating Niger 1-0 in Group B on Sunday.
The captain took advantage of a slip by Niger's goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly, who spilled a cross from Fousseiny Diawara right at Keita's feet and he swept it into the net in the 84th minute at Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
It came as reward for a long period of dominance by Mali against a spirited but outgunned Niger, who were hoping for a first ever point in the finals.
The victory followed three successive draws on the opening weekend of the continental championship in South Africa.
Keita had just minutes earlier hit the woodwork with a similar close in effort.
Mali turned up the heat in the closing stages bringing on Momo Sissoko and Samba Diakite to add bite to the midfield and allow Keita to push forward alongside the two strikers.
Mali had the better of limited exchanges in a pedestrian first half, but Mahamane Traore and Mahamadou Ndiaye were both off target.
They also found it hard to get clear-cut chances after the break as their attacks became increasingly desperate.
Niger played a cautious game, seeking chances on the counter-attack but in the end were let down by an elementary error.
"It was our plan against a big Mali team to try and hold out as long as possible and we defended well until we let in the goal. I have to congratulate my players even though we lost," said Niger coach Gernot Rohr.
Niger now play the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday while Mali meet Ghana in the next series of Group B games.
Bayern fans snap up 45,000 tickets to watch Champions League final live at Allianz Arena
When Sir Alex wakes up on Monday morning without team to manage, he will not be putting his feet up
Paris Saint-Germain midfielder announces he will be retiring at the end of the current season
Record goal-scorer signs a one-year contract extension with Europa League winners Chelsea
Ten years on, the legends speak to FFT
Your questions answered by an A to Z of legends
He's here, he's there, he's...
The cost of Premier League away travel
Nike CR7 IX for you
FourFourTwo is brought to you by Haymarket Consumer Media & FourFourTwo is part of Haymarket Sport
| International Licensing | © Haymarket Media Group 2010