Seydou Keita scored with six minutes to go as Mali grabbed a 1-0 win over Niger in their opening match of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday.
Niger enjoyed he first chance of the game 10 minutes in when Fatoghoma Kourouma tried to turn a volley home after Mali goalkeeper Mahamadou Samassa had missed a corner.
Five minutes later Sigamary Diarra sent his effort over at the other end before Mahamadou N'Diay nodded the ball just wide from a corner.
The Mali goalkeeper had to pull off a fine double save after his defence had failed to clear in the 22nd minute before Cheick Diarra sent an effort wide with his knee in the 31st minute.
Substitute Mahamadou Samassa sent a shot just wide five minutes into the second period for Mali before Kassaly Daouda had to make a sublime save to deny Keita.
Samassa continued to be a handful and hit the side netting after a determined run while Moussa Maazou nodded over after getting onto the end of a great cross from Boubacar Issoufou.
The intensity had picked up in the final 20 minutes with Keita hitting the bar with a thunderous strike before Mahamane Traore headed just over and Mohamed Soumaila scuffed a shot from a good position.
The decisive moment arrived in the 84th minute when Daouda made a complete mess by spilling the ball under pressure and Keita was on hand to knock it home.
Niger piled everyone forward in the dying minutes but Mali held on to ensure that they took an early lead in Group B.