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The Liverpool forward converted a 97th-minute penalty on Monday to punish Kelvin Madzongwe’s handball as Aliou Cisse’s side kicked off Group B with a hard-fought if unconvincing victory in Bafoussam.
Top-ranked Senegal are among the favourites to triumph in Cameroon and win the continental competition for the first time in their history, though have seen preparations hampered by a Covid-19 outbreak that left them with only 18 players for their opening fixture.
Captain Kalidou Koulibaly, Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and former Bristol City striker Famara Diedhiou are all in isolation, while Saliou Ciss, Bamba Dieng, Mame Baba Thiam, Pape Matar Sarr, Nampalys Mendy and Alfred Gomis were left behind in Dakar due to positive tests.
Watford winger Ismaila Sarr and Abdoulaye Seck are both sidelined through injury for the Lions of Teranga, meanwhile.
Tournament organisers have stipulated that teams affected by Covid outbreaks must fulfil their games if they have 11 players available.
Senegal’s Boulaye Dia thrashed a shot just wide of the Zimbabwe goal after 40 seconds, suggesting the match might turn out to be a one-sided affair. However, it proved anything but as Zimbabwe came within seconds of an unexpected point.
Mane had one enterprising move down the left flank, tricking his way past two defenders but then hitting his angled effort straight at goalkeeper Petros Mhari in the 24th minute.
Captain Idrissa Gueye had the best effort for Senegal seven minutes from half-time with just the goalkeeper to beat, but his first touch was too heavy as he steadied himself for a shot and the opportunity was lost.
With some 20 minutes to go, Senegal defender Abdou Diallo came close with a headed attempt from a free-kick, putting it just over the crossbar.
Zimbabwe were restricted to a handful of counter-attack chances and set-piece opportunities, the best of which their captain Knowledge Musona wasted by floating it over the top.
They had been under threat of expulsion before the tournament by FIFA, who warned of a ban after the Zimbabwe Football Association was disbanded by the government, after accusations of fraud, but a deadline to reinstate the association’s executive has passed without any action.
Additional reporting by Reuters.