A Sadio Mane penalty seven minutes into stoppage time enabled a lacklustre Senegal to beat Zimbabwe 1-0 as both sides opened Group B in Bafoussam.
Defeat was harsh on Zimbabwe who had made Senegal, one of the tournament favourites, look distinctly ordinary.
In the fourth minute of stoppage time, Kelvin Madzongwe was adjudged to have handled as he turned his back on a strike from substitute Pape Gueye.
Liverpool’s Mane rifled home to give Senegal the perfect start to the group.
Featuring a side shorn of several players, including captain Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy, because of covid, the Senegalese had earlier missed a host of chances.
The best fell to midfielder Gana Gueye shortly before half-time but the Paris Saint-Germain star could not control an easy pass from Mane with the goal beckoning.
Mane himself had been denied earlier in the half when shooting straight at Zimbabwe goalkeeper Petros Mhari, who impressed, after wriggling into space in the box.
Senegal came into this tournament seeking a first Nations Cup crown after losing the 2019 final to Algeria but were far from their best after only being able to name 17 players, out of a squad of 28.
The West Africans started the lunchtime kick-off in impressive fashion, with Bayern Munich’s Bouna Sarr striking a low shot just inches wide before Keita Balde also failed to hit the target when he had time on the ball.
At the other end, Knowledge Musona let fly from 20 yards only to see his fine strike whistle past the post as Zimbabwe, looking to reach the knock-out stages for the first time, went close.
Shortly after half-time, Pape Cisse spurned a glorious chance to break the deadlock but could only steer his free header from a corner powerfully past the post with Mhari stranded.
Ultimately, Senegal – Africa’s top-ranked side for the last three years – failed to impress against a well-organised Zimbabwe side who showed no ill effect from the uncertainty surrounding their participation at the finals.
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