BAFOUSSAM, Cameroon (AP) — Sadio Mané saved Senegal with a 97th-minute penalty to beat Zimbabwe 1-0 while Morocco won the first meeting of heavyweights at the African Cup of Nations with a late goal to edge Ghana 1-0 on Monday.
Neither game produced much high-quality soccer despite them involving three title contenders. It didn't disappoint that many fans in Cameroon, though, as both were played in front of sparse crowds as the African showpiece reverted to one of its perennial problems.
The tournament often struggles with poor attendances when the host nation isn't playing. This year, only people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are allowed into the stadiums, meaning the crowds in Cameroon might be even smaller than normal.
Senegal, Africa's top-ranked team, opened its campaign on the second day of the tournament with an unconvincing win in Group B over a team ranked 101 places below it. It was a win nonetheless.
Mané sent goalkeeper Petros Mhari the wrong way and drilled his very late penalty into the left corner at the Kouekong Stadium in Cameroon's western city of Bafoussam. The Liverpool forward took his chance after Zimbabwe midfielder Kelvin Madzongwe was penalized for handball in the fourth minute of injury time as the game suddenly ended in drama.
Zimbabwe protested vehemently but referee Mario Escobar of Guatemala stuck by his decision after referring to a video review, which is being used at every game at the African Cup for the first time. Madzongwe had thrown himself to the ground trying to block a shot and the ball struck his arm.
Mané's penalty was effectively the last kick of the game as Escobar blew for fulltime as soon as Zimbabwe restarted.
Senegal played without goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and captain Kalidou Koulibaly, who were among a group of players ruled out for the game after testing positive for the coronavirus. There have been virus outbreaks in many of the 24 squads in the buildup and at the tournament and it seems the African Cup will soldier on through them.
In an update to its tournament rules because of the virus, the Confederation of African Football has said teams must fulfil fixtures if they have at least 11 players healthy and available, even if it means they won't have any substitutes.
Senegal has also lost forward Ismaila Sarr for the tournament with injury, providing it with a less-than-ideal buildup to its latest quest to win the African title for the first time.
Senegal lost to Algeria in the final at the last African Cup in 2019.
Guinea beat Malawi 1-0 in the day's other Group B game with a first-half goal from Issiaga Sylla. Guinea-Malawi followed the Senegal-Zimbabwe game at the same stadium.
Morocco vs. Ghana at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde seemed headed for 0-0 when Sofiane Boufal suddenly pounced on a loose ball that bounced off a Ghana defender to score Morocco's 83rd-minute winner.
Ghana captain Andre Ayew finished the game with a bandage wrapped round his head and blood seeping through it after a clash of heads with Morocco skipper Romain Saiss. It encapsulated the game as the Ghanaian came off second best.
Comoros, a tiny Indian Ocean island off the east coast of Africa, makes its debut at the African Cup against Gabon in Monday's last game.
Cameroon's African Cup opened Sunday when the host team beat Burkina Faso 2-1. The Central African nation has been waiting three years for this tournament after it was stripped of the right to host the 2019 African Cup and then saw its second chance in 2021 postponed for a year because of the pandemic.