Nigeria’s Dream Team shot to the top of Group B of the Africa U-23 Cup of Nations after edging Mali 3-2 in M’Bour on Sunday.
A tough and keenly-contested game was split into two halves as 1996 Olympic champions Nigeria raced to a 3-0 lead at half time but could still have shared the points at the end.
Siasia’s Dream Team soaked up early pressure as Mali rocked Emmanuel Daniel’s crossbar as early as the first minute, and the West African rivals made some good runs into the Nigerian area. However, on 16 minutes, Tunisia–based forward Junior Ajayi sweetly back heeled into the Malian net after a good run down the left by Usman Mohammed.
Mohammed turned goalscorer 18 minutes later, sweeping into the net with his right foot after Sincere Seth ran down the right flank and cut back into the box, with Ajayi missing the first touch.
Ajayi completed his brace on the dot of half time, latching on brilliantly to the ball as goalkeeper Djigui Diarra parried a hot shot from Etebo Oghenekaro.
The Malians came into the second half much stronger and determined, while the Dream Team appeared relaxed. It took only nine minutes for the Malians to reduce the deficit, as Ndifreke Effiong tripped a Malian forward in the box. Adama Niane converted beautifully.
Mali got a second as the Dream Team allowed them all the play. Souleymane Sissoko scored from a quick break from the left and the Malians now had belief they could turn it around.
With 15 minutes to go, Mali came so close, but Daniel saved from Adama Traore before the rebound narrowly missed target. A rasping shot from a free kick in added time sailed over, and handed the Dream Team the three points.
Egypt and Algeria had earlier played a 1-1 draw in the first match of Group B, meaning the Dream Team now heads that pool. Nigeria next play Egypt on Wednesday while Algeria will take on Mali.
In Saturday’s Group A matches, host Senegal shot down South Africa 3-1, while Zambia lost 1-2 to Tunisia. On Tuesday, Senegal will take on Tunisia in a top-of-the-table battle, while South Africa battles Zambia.