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 before the end of the encounter.
Mali made a bright start with Bordeaux’s Cheick Diabate 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 chance falling to Keita, but he crashed his volley against Diabate.
Despite their overwhelming control of the midfield and superior ball possession, Mali were unable to find the back of the net, as their efforts were mainly restricted to harmless shots from distance.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron chose to bring more pace to his side in the second half by substituting Cheick Fantamady Diarra with Mahamadou Samassa, 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 parried away by Kassaly, leaving the former Barcelona midfielder ruing the missed chance.
Niger began to grow in confidence near the last quarter of the game and had one of their best chances in the 72nd minute when captain Moussa Maazou’s header from a corner floated slightly over the crossbar.
Niger’s resistance began to wane as the Malians continued to press and Keita finally broke the deadlock in the 84th minute.
After collecting a loose ball during a goalmouth scramble, he calmly slotted past Kassaly, who was left with no chance.
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 drew 2-2.