LIBREVILLE, Gabon – Gabon opened its African Cup of Nations campaign with a dominant 2-0 win over tournament debutant Niger on Monday in Group C.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sent a far-post header into the net in the 30th minute from a deep cross by Stephane Nguema as the co-host controlled play throughout.
Nguema swept a loose ball home for the second just before halftime after Aubameyang’s close-range header had been saved by busy goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, sending the home crowd crazy and delighting Gabon President Ali Bongo.
The famously football-mad president jumped up from his seat to celebrate and hug his wife and first lady, Sylvia, who was wearing a yellow Gabon team shirt with Aubameyang’s No. 9 on it.
Niger was starved of possession and completely outplayed at a packed and rowdy Stade de l’Amitie in its first match at an African Cup.
Niger’s Belgian-based striker, Moussa Maazou, was given little service and the first-timers’ only clear chance came in the 79th minute when Maazou’s header was pushed away by goalkeeper and captain Didier Ovono.
Gabon went top of Group C, but North African pair Morocco and Tunisia are both still the favourites to qualify for the quarterfinals from the grroup.
“I think it is a good beginning (to the tournament),” Gabon’s German coach, Gernot Rohr, said. “We won the game but we know the most difficult is yet to come. There is a little satisfaction but it is short. Tomorrow we have to prepare for Morocco.”
Urged on by the home crowd, Gabon threatened inside five minutes when Daouda’s poor punch fell straight to Levy Madinda on the edge of the box, but the midfielder’s shot was charged down by two defenders.
Cedric Moubamba had a similar chance four minutes later after another shaky clearance from an under-pressure Niger defence. However, his left-footed drive was well off target.
A weak effort by Maazou from the edge of the area was easily collected by Ovono in Niger’s only early break.
Aubameyang missed a golden opportunity to make Gabon’s early pressure tell in the 18th when the Saint-Etienne striker’s shot was blocked by a sprawling Daouda.
Gabon’s noisy fans had a goal to celebrate on the half hour as Aubameyang squeezed his header past Daouda from Nguema’s floated cross for Stade de l’Amitie to erupt in celebration.
Talatou Boubacar couldn’t force a shot through a crowd of bodies after a Niger corner near the end of the half, and Gabon pounced on the counterattack to extend its lead right on halftime.
Charly Moussono whipped a cross in from the left wing and, when Aubameyang’s header was stopped by Daouda, Nguema side-footed the rebound in.
Niger began to struggle badly at the back and were lucky not to fall three goals behind early in the second half. Defenders Mohamed Chicoto and Kader Amadou both failed to deal with a cross by Aubameyang, leaving Eric Mouloungui one-on-one with Daouda — the Nice striker couldn’t convert the chance.
Gabon continued to control the tempo and eased off in the latter stages against a Niger team that failed to deal with the partisan crowd — and the hosts’ slick passing — in its first match at a major tournament.
“I think we were a little bit destabilized. We found ourselves quite disorganized,” Niger coach Harouna Doula said. “What I can say is we can forget this one and prepare for the other games.”
Niger’s hopes were also hampered when forward Issoufou Alhassane went off injured before halftime. Doula’s team also finished with 10 men when substitute Moutari Amadou was hurt in the closing minutes after Niger had made all three of its changes.
Dominating the Niger defence with pace and skill, Aubameyang hit a long-range shot just wide of the post in the last 10 minutes before he made way for veteran forward Daniel Cousin.
“I’m very happy,” Aubameyang said. “We were really thinking about this victory.”
Gabon: Didier Ovono, Edmond Mouele, Remy Ebanega, Bruno Ecuele Manga, Stephane Nguema (Bruno-Zita Mbanangoye, 75), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Daniel Cousin, 83), Eric Mouloungui, Levy Madinda, Andre Biyogo (Lloyd Palun, 90), Cedric Moubamba, Charly Moussono.
Niger: Kassaly Daouda, Moussa Maazou, Karim Lancina, Kader Amadou, Idrissa Laouali, Talatou Boubacar (Moutari Amadou, 63), Issoufou Alhassane (Yacouba Seydou Ali, 43), Mohamed Chicoto, Issoufou Boubacar, Sulliman Mazadou (Jimmy Bulus, 57), Mohamed Soumaila.