PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa - Seydou Keita proved to be the talisman for Mali again with a late winner as it emerged the first victor at the African Nations Cup finals, beating Niger 1-0 in Group B last night.

The captain took advantage of a slip by Niger’s goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, who spilled a cross from Fousseiny Diawara right at Keita’s feet and he swept it into the net in the 84th minute at Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

It came as reward for a long period of dominance by Mali against a spirited but outgunned Niger, which was hoping for a first-ever point in the finals.
The victory followed three successive draws on the opening weekend of the continental championship in South Africa.

Keita had just minutes earlier hit the woodwork with a similar close in effort.
Mali turned up the heat in the closing stages bringing on Momo Sissoko and Samba Diakite to add bite to the midfield and allow Keita to push forward alongside the two strikers.

Mali had the better of limited exchanges in a pedestrian first half, but Mahamane Traore and Mahamadou N’Diaye were both off target. They also found it hard to get clear-cut chances after the break as their attacks became increasingly desperate. Niger played a cautious game, seeking chances on the counter-attack but in the end was let down by an elementary error.

“It was our plan against a big Mali team to try and hold out as long as possible and we defended well until we let in the goal. I have to congratulate my players even though we lost,” said Niger coach Gernot Rohr.

Niger now plays the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday while Mali meets Ghana in the next series of Group B games.

Haifa on fire

In the Israeli Premier League, meanwhile, Maccabi Haifa won its fourth game in a row last night, easily overcoming Hapoel Ramat Gan 3-0.

Wiyam Amashe opened the scoring in the 18th minute and Taleb Twatiha effectively put the result beyond doubt with Haifa’s second goal 10 minutes later.

Shlomi Azulay rounded off the scoring in the 71st minute, moving the Greens closer to the two Tel Aviv clubs in first and second place.

Hoops results

In Premier League basketball action last night, Galil Elyon edged Hapoel Holon 79-76; Hapoel Jerusalem beat Maccabi Netanya 79-70; Hapoel Tel Aviv overcame Ironi Ashkelon 54-51; and Maccabi Haifa trounced Hapoel Eilat 96-87.