African Cup of Nations - Traore strike downs Guinea
Mali secured a vital 1-0 victory over West African rivals Guinea in Franceville as they joined Ghana at the top of African Cup of Nations Group D.
The neighbouring countries are expected to contest second place behind the Black Stars, who earlier beat Botswana 1-0 in their opening game, and it was Mali who took a big step towards qualifying for the knock-out stage thanks to a deflected strike from Bakaye Traore after 30 minutes.
Guinea, who qualified unbeaten for the finals when surprising the more fancied Nigeria, enjoyed the greater number of chances in Gabon but were frustrated by a combination of wayward finishing and some accomplished defending from Alain Giresse's Mali side as their hopes of escaping the group diminished greatly.
In what was a keenly-contested derby match in Gabon, Guinea threatened inside 60 seconds when Stuttgart winger Ibrahima Traore forced Mali keeper Soumbeila Diakite into a sprawling save with a firm drive from 25 yards.
Diakite was called into action again soon after when Traore exploited some inattentive defending down the right to deliver a dangerous cross that found Ismael Bangoura. The striker's header was firm and well directed but Diakite flung out his left arm to claw it out.
Though Mali were the more accomplished in their use of the ball, Guinea's raw pace and direct approach unsettled the Eagles and young forward Lass Bangoura, of Spanish top-flight side Rayo Vallecano, was a constant threat, with one fine effort thumping into the side netting.
When Mali took a somewhat unexpected lead it was in comical circumstances. Modibo Maiga did well to cut in from the right and slide a pass back to Cheick Diabate, but the big striker found only air as he swung at the ball. Luckily it then rolled into the path of Bakaye Traore, whose firm drive caught the back of Bobo Balde and deflected past goalkeeper Naby Yattara.
Guinea did not deserve to be a goal down and almost responded within minutes when Ismael Bangoura embarked on an intelligent run in the box, only for Diakite to rush off his line and make a crucial save at the striker's feet.
Lass Bangoura sent a header off target and Ibrahima Diallo was surprised to be penalised for diving when it appeared that Mahamadou N'Diaye had in fact fouled him just inside the box, but still Guinea were denied an equaliser.
Mali's threat was more sporadic but they were unfortunate to see Adama Tamboura adjudged offside after he collected a piercing through-ball from Seydou Keita that was worthy of the midfielder's team-mate at Barcelona, Xavi.
Further bad luck was to follow on the stroke of half-time for Mali when Bobo Balde risked a red card when pulling down Diabate as the last man. The somewhat theatrical nature of the striker's fall to ground worked against him as Guinea retained their full complement of players going into the break.
Lass Bangoura continued to prove a threat in the second half but he was surprisingly substituted just before the hour mark. Mali also made a change when Diabate was removed from the fray after being on the receiving end of a succession of bruising challenges from Bobo Balde, who miraculously escaped punishment.
Guinea's tinkering almost paid dividends on 66 minutes as one substitute, Abdoulaye Camara, fired in a dangerous cross from the left and almost picked out another, Ousmane Barry, who was inches away from making a decisive connection.
Mali's own substitute, Garra Dembele, broke clear on goal just a minute later but Yattara reacted well to race off his line and block at the feet of the striker. The keeper found himself stranded 30 yards from goal but both Keita and Maiga passed up the chance to try and lob him.
Unlucky to be a goal down, Guinea continued to trouble the Mali defence as the game entered the final 15 minutes and Pascal Feindouno saw a free-kick that was heading towards the top corner saved by Diakite.
However, Mali's defence, marshalled by the superb Cedric Kante for the full duration of the match, held out manfully and when Feindouno had a fierce effort from 25 yards tipped over the bar in injury time, it signalled the end of Guinea's efforts to find that elusive goal.