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Gabon matches Equatorial Guinea's winning start

LIBREVILLE, Gabon - Gabon matched Equatorial Guinea's spirited start at the African Cup of Nations on Monday after a pulsating atmosphere at Stade de l'Amitie carried the co-host to a 2-0 win over Niger in front of its football-mad president.

LIBREVILLE, Gabon - Gabon matched Equatorial Guinea's spirited start at the African Cup of Nations on Monday after a pulsating atmosphere at Stade de l'Amitie carried the co-host to a 2-0 win over Niger in front of its football-mad president.

Ali Bongo and his first lady Sylvia — wearing a team shirt — celebrated like fans in the stadium's VIP section as the "Panthers" outclassed tournament debutant Niger 2-0 in the first match in Gabon.

Gabon controlled its match from start to finish, with first-half goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Stephane Nguema capping its dominance as it was roared on by rowdy supporters.

Morocco then fell to a surprise defeat — as Senegal did on the opening day — after missing a bunch of chances to go down 2-1 to North African rival Tunisia, which held on under late pressure after conceding an 86th-minute goal.

Every top team is now aware of the danger of the underdogs at Africa's showpiece. Not least highly rated Ghana, which takes on another first-timer in Botswana when Group D kicks off on Tuesday in Franceville.

At Libreville, President Bongo jumped out of his seat to celebrate and hug his smiling wife when Nguema scored to seal the victory that put Gabon top of Group C.

Gabon had opened its biggest sporting moment with a brief opening ceremony at the new stadium, but the atmosphere fizzled when the home team appeared on the pitch at the packed 40,000-seat venue.

Sylvia Bongo had replaced her chic suit for the ceremony with a shirt bearing the No. 9 of star striker Aubameyang, and the Saint-Etienne forward repaid the first lady's faith with Gabon's opener.

Roared on by the yellow, green and blue crowd, Nguema swept in a second goal with Niger failing to match the intensity of the home team.

"We had to concentrate on the team and not on the crowd," Niger coach Harouna Doula said, conceding the atmosphere had made a big difference. "It was always going to be pretty difficult against the host country."

Despite his team's impressive start — and an underwhelming show from Morocco — Gabon coach Gernot Rohr called for calm with the buoyant co-host and its excited supporters now targeting upsets against the North African pair.

"What's important for us now is the future," Rohr said. "We've taken a step today. We have two more important steps to take in order to qualify. The pressure was strong and we managed it very well."

Arsenal's Marouane Chamakh and Youssouf Hadji produced the worst of a string of misses for Eric Gerets' Morocco, which was tipped to go far in the competition and possibly challenge favourite Ivory Coast and the Ghanaians for the title.

But Gerets' team was at times careless and undone by a youthful Tunisian outfit which capitalized on its chances through Saber Khalifa and a high-quality second-half goal by substitute Youssef Msakni.

Morocco captain Houssine Kharja pulled one back late — sparking a goalmouth scuffle — but he hit a last-minute shot agonizingly over to leave Morocco trailing Tunisia and Gabon ahead of a meeting with the co-host on Friday.

"This shows each match is difficult. We can have a lot of surprises in the tournament," a stern-looking Gerets said. "It seems our game against Gabon will be a big game. The best lesson to my players should be don't forget your head. Sometimes it was only the heart that was playing."

Amidst reports of not being happy with its remote hotel in Gabon's south east city of Franceville, Ghana is under pressure to keep its focus against minnow Botswana when the final group gets underway.

The team has already been warned not to be complacent by the country's vice-president, John Dramani Mahama — another politician closely following Africa's football showpiece.

Ghana has a full squad to pick from with the exception of suspended defender Isaac Vorsah, meaning Asamoah Gyan could return from the hamstring injury that had threatened his participation in the tournament.

Guinea and an injury-hit Mali, meanwhile, will be the final two teams to play in the tournament, meeting in Tuesday's second game at Stade de Franceville.

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Follow Gerald Imray at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

 
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