FRANCEVILLE, Gabon - Asamoah Gyan's curling free kick and a superb finish from Andre Ayew gave Ghana a 2-0 win over Mali at the African Cup of Nations on Saturday, edging the title contender toward the quarterfinals.
Gyan's goal in the 63rd minute brought to life a cagey encounter between the group favourites at Stade de Franceville.
Ayew then collected a backheel from Gyan and teased two defenders before firing a low shot in at the near post in the 76th as Ghana finished strongly.
Three teams — Ghana, Mali and Guinea — are still in the running for two quarterfinal places in Group D with one round of games to play. Ghana's victory ensured outsider Botswana was eliminated after the underdog lost 6-1 to Guinea hours earlier.
Striker Cheick Diabate came closest to scoring for Mali when his first-half free kick went off the inside of the left upright, across the goal line and bounced out off the other post with Ghana goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey beaten, before Ghana finally found the form to back up its reputation as Ivory Coast's main challenger for the African Cup title.
It took the Black Stars more than one and a half games to get there after clinging on for a 1-0 win over lowly Botswana and initially struggling to break down a defensive Mali setup.
Gyan's pinpoint free kick into the top right corner belatedly kickstarted Ghana's campaign. The striker, who had been struggling with an ankle injury in the week, punched his chest in celebration. Ayew stepped inside and then back outside two defenders after Gyan's neat touch and drilled his shot past Mali keeper Soumaila Diakite.
"After our first game people were putting a question mark next to Ghana," Ayew said, "but today we've proved we are here and we're going to fight until the end."
Ghana's place in the knockout stage is still not certain ahead of its game against Guinea. Mali plays Botswana and all three contenders could still finish on six points, leaving Group D to be decided by their head-to-head records and goals scored in those games.
A third win for coach Goran Stevanovic's team would seal its passage as group winner, however, after a crucial victory over the Malians, who defended deep for the first 60 minutes and blunted Ghana's attack.
"This game was nervous," Stevanovic said. "No one wanted to lose this game. Before the game we were a bit under pressure and we needed this victory."
Mali coach Alain Giresse backed his team's defensive tactics and despite the loss Mali is still a good bet for the quarters with a game against Botswana left.
"We didn't come to play a loving game," Giresse said, "we came to win. Ghana is a good team, you know."
Both teams packed the midfield, with Ghana also fielding a remodeled defence following captain John Mensah's red card in the narrow win over Botswana.
Jonathan Mensah replaced his namesake at centre back while John Pantsil took over captaincy duties.
Ghana: Adam Kwarasey, Asamoah Gyan, John Pantsil, Anthony Annan (Derek Boateng, 90), Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, Andre Ayew, Sulley Muntari (Charles Takyi, 59), Masahudu Alhassan, Jonathan Mensah, Kwadwo Asamoah (Samuel Inkoom, 89), John Boye.
Mali: Soumaila Diakite, Adama Tamboura, Ousmane Berthe, Cedric Kante, Abdou Traore (Samba Sow, 86), Cheick Diabate (Garra Dembele, 65), Modigo Maiga (Mustapha Yatabare, 77), Seydou Keita, Drissa Diakite, Bakaye Traore, Samba Diakite.