After a scoring three unreplied goals in the first half, Nigeria had to hang on to beat Mali 3-2 in their opening U23 AFCON Group B match in Mbour, Senegal, Sunday night.
This was the classic game of two halves - Nigeria cruised in the first 45 minutes to score three goals, but they were bested by Mali after the interval and had to hold out till the very last minute to stop a remarkable comeback by the boys from Bamako.
The win means Nigeria shoot to the top of the standings with three points after Algeria and Egypt played out a 1-1 draw in the opening match in Mbour earlier Sunday.
Tunisia-based Junior Ajayi netted a brace, while Usman Mohammed was also on target for Dream Team VI all in the first half.
However, after the interval, Mali fought back to score twice for this encounter to go all the way to a nail-biting end.
Adama Niane scored from the penalty spot after 55 minutes after he was fouled inside the box by Oghenekaro Etebo.
And 10 minutes later, Souleyman Sissoko got Mali their second goal when he drove through the Nigeria defence before he slotted past the goalkeeper.
But before their second-half goals Mali had carved out the better chances in front of goal after the first whistle and could even have scored within the first minute, but Adama Traore’s effort came off the crossbar and back into play.
Nigeria soaked the pressure, before they finally got going to score almost against the run of play in the 16th minute, when Ajayi stylishly back heeled home after a superb run down the right flank by the impressive Stanley Dimgba.
Mali continued to chase the game but it was Nigeria who doubled their lead after 34 minutes, when Usman Mohammed turned in a loose ball from inside the box after a great cut-back by Sincere Seth.
But just a minute after this second goal, Nigeria goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel produced a big save when he blocked at point-blank range the dangerous Adama Traore.
Mali also threatened to pull a goal back five minutes to the interval, but again Daniel was alert to cut out the danger at the feet of Niane.
In first half stoppage time, Junior Ajayi made it 3-0 after Mali goalkeeper Diarra failed to hold a powerful shot fired by skipper Azubuike Okechukwu from the edge of the box.
But it was a completely different ball game in the second period as Nigeria were camped in their own half and Mali attacked in search of goals and were rewarded with two, which were just shy of earning them a share of the points on the day.