Africa-Press – Sierra-Leone. All four Africa Cup of Nations games on Monday ended 1-0 with Senegal, Morocco, Guinea and Gabon kicking off their campaigns with victory to take a huge step towards the knockout stage.
Strongly-fancied Senegal left it surprisingly late, only defeating Zimbabwe with a 97th-minute penalty from Liverpool’s Sadio Mane in Bafoussam while in the other Group B encounter Guinea’s win came courtesy of Issiaga Sylla’s first-half strike against Malawi.
In the heavyweight clash in Cameroon capital of Yaounde, Morocco beat Ghana via Sofiane Boufal’s 83rd-minute goal to be joint top of Group C with Gabon, who accounted for finals debutants Comoros Islands thanks to a strike from Aaron Boupendza.
With 16 of the 24 teams qualifying from the group stage one more point from the remaining two matches should be enough to progress for each of the day’s victors.
Senegal have twice been runners-up, reaching the final at the last edition in 2019, and as the top-ranked team in Africa are among the favourites. But with players and staff missing through COVID-19 they struggled to overcome outsiders Zimbabwe.
Mane and Paris Saint-Germain duo Abdou Diallo and Idrissa Gana Gueye had all wasted clear chances and a draw seemed inevitable. But substitute Pape Gueye’s shot struck the arm of Kelvin Madzongwe as the defender attempted to block.
After a VAR check Mane kept calm to score with what proved the penultimate kick of the match, Zimbabwe only having time to restart before the final whistle. Morocco and Ghana, both contenders, played warily for most of the game.
A shot from Joseph Paintsil that Sevilla’s Bono turned around the post was Ghana’s best effort while a first half header by Wolves’ Romain Saiss was Morocco’s main threat.
Then Boufal seized on a loose ball after Zakaria Aboukhlal’s mazy run had been halted by Thomas Partey. Morocco, who won the tournament in 1976, are now unbeaten in 10 matches.
Malawi, despite a COVID-19 outbreak that meant they could only name two outfield substitutes, pushed Guinea all the way but the decisive moment arrived in the 35th minute when Toulouse defender Sylla found himself in the box to neatly tuck away a cross from Jose Kante.
Gabon, who were missing talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and influential midfielder Mario Lemina due to COVID-19 infections, never looked troubled and were never headed after Boupendza rifled the ball into the roof of the net in the 16th minutes after he was set free in the box by Louis Ameka.