Senegal lived up to their billing as one of the favourites to win the Africa Cup of Nations with a confident 2-0 victory over Tunisia in their opening game.
Aliou Cisse’s side are aiming to reach the knockout stage of the competition for the first time in 11 years and they made a strong start when Africa’s most expensive footballer, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, put them ahead with a penalty after 10 minutes at Stade de Franceville.
The Teranga Lions’ squad features players from some of Europe’s top clubs and their quality showed when Kara Mbodji made it 2-0 with a powerful headed goal.
Tunisia coach Henryk Kasperczak saw his side fight valiantly for a way back into the game in the second half, with Ahmed Akaichi and Youssef Msakni keeping Abdoulaye Diallo busy in the Senegal goal, but Cisse’s men proved themselves to be as steely in defence as they were incisive in attack.
This is Senegal’s 14th appearance in the competition – a record for a team that has never lifted the trophy – and after a strong start against a good Tunisia side their supporters will be dreaming of glory.
Akaichi went close for Tunisia in the first two minutes of the game, first firing over close range and then turning Ali Maaloul’s cross past the post with a header.
Mane brought Senegal to life when he turned skilfully and played in Kalidou Koulibaly to shoot just wide moments before Aymen Abdennour brought down Cheikhou Kouyate in the box.
And Mane made no mistake from the penalty spot and side-footed the Teranga Lions into the lead.
Akaichi squandered another chance for Tunisia, racing clear only to fire wide of the target, and he was made to rue the miss when Kara doubled Senegal’s lead with a header from Keita Diao’s corner that Aymen Mathlouthi could not keep out despite getting a hand to it.
Mane and Idrissa Gueye pulled the strings for Senegal throughout a composed first-half performance, while Msakni blazed over just before half-time, leaving his side with a mountain to climb after the interval.
Kasperczak sent on Wahbi Khazri for Larry Azouni to bolster his side’s attack in the second half, and Maaloul whipped a free-kick just over shortly after the restart.
Keita threatened to extend Senegal’s lead with a clever turn and shot but his attempt lacked accuracy, and Mame Biram Diouf also missed the target when he connected with a well-delivered Keita corner.
Tunisia continued to press and Msakni should have scored when he went clean through on goal only to fire weakly at Diallo, who then made a superb reflex save to deny Akaichi at point-blank range.
Recognising the need for fresh legs on a hot night in Gabon, Cisse sent on Ismaila Sarr, and the Metz winger curled an audacious shot onto the crossbar before Diallo scrambled an effort off the line at the other end.
Kara almost spoiled Senegal’s clean sheet when he sliced a clearance backwards onto his own crossbar, but the ball rolled to safety and Senegal claimed all three points to go top of Group B.