Nigeria’s Under-23 team edged their Malian counterparts 3-2 in M’Bour, Senegal in a Group B game of the Under-23 Afcon on Sunday.
The Nigerians raced into a three-goal lead at half time through a brace from Junior Ajayi and a strike from FC Taraba’s playmaker Usman Mohammed.
Second half goals from Adama Niane and Souleymane Sissoko for the Malians to peg back Nigeria.
Nigeria under-23 head coach, Samson Siasia, named two overseas-based players, Taiwo Awoniyi and Ajayi, in his startlist with the former playing in a strange wide position on the right. Ajayi justified playing as the centre forward.
Abia Warriors attacking midfielder, Ndifreke Udo Effiong, started at left-back.
Mali should have gone ahead on 36 seconds when Souleymane Diarra’s effort came off the crossbar with Nigeria goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel rooted to the spot.
Cheick Oumar Kone’s men who had seven overseas-based stars among their starters continued to run the show with sleek passing play that pinned back Siasia’s men.
But the game turned on its head when Nigeria took the lead in the 16th minute. Warri Wolves winger Stanley Dimgba’s pace on the left channel was too much for the Malians to curb as he crossed low into the box, Awoniyi missed though got a touch before Ajayi finished off with a cheeky backheel past Djigui Diarra in Mali’s goal.
Ajayi’s goal was the alibi Nigeria needed to restore confidence after a shaky start, and in the 34th minute, Usman side-footed from close range past Djigui following a sweeping move to make it two-nil.
Despite their two-goal lead, Nigeria were made to chase possession of the ball but Ajayi popped up again in the Mali box again to score his second of the game to give his team a three-goal in the first minute of added time.
At the break it was clear that Mali did not just have a Herculean task in their hands, but had a mountain to climb.
Oumar Kone’s men responded well in the restart and within 10 minutes of the second half gave themselves a lifeline.
FC Nantes forward Adama Niane scored from the spot after he was fouled in the Nigerian box by Oghenekaro Etebo.
The Malian coach then switched tactics by throwing on Real de Bamako striker, Yves Bissouma for defender Idrissa Sogodogo and that move paid off as they put Nigeria on the backfoot all through the second half.
On 65 minutes, a neat move by Mali freed Sissoko in the box and the Wydad Casablanca man made no mistake to prod the ball past a despairing Daniel in Nigeria’s goal.
Mali continued to probe their West African rivals and found an avenue to exploit in Nigeria’s left-back as Adama Traore gave Effiong a torrid time.
Siasia’s men held on to their lead in a game of two halves to claim the full points to go top of Group B after Egypt and Algeria had earlier played out a 1-1 draw. (Supersport)