Congo and Niger played out a goalless draw at the African Cup of Nations on Thursday to let Mali and Ghana off the hook and leave the two favoured teams at the top of Group B heading to the final round of games.
A win for Congo would have put pressure on both, especially Mali, but crucial saves from Niger goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda ensured Claude Le Roy’s team couldn’t break through at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Niger were also dangerous, with their best period early in the second half when captain Moussa Maazou threatened three times in a six-minute spell.
Congo should have been well ahead by then, but Daouda pulled off a diving one-handed save and a close-range block to twice deny striker Dieumerci Mbokani in the first half.
Niger had one final chance deep in stoppage time as Muteba Kidiaba dived to his left to push away a shot and prevent a last-gasp goal that would have been cruel on Congo, which was wasteful but still enterprising.
The draw leaves Ghana top on four points after a 1-0 victory over Mali earlier Thursday. Mali have three points, Congo two and Niger one.
Congo forward Mbokani was left exasperated after blowing the best chances against Niger, holding his head in his hands, punching the ground and looking anguished after his costly misses.
In a game Congo were expected to be far too good in having troubled Ghana plenty in a 2-2 draw in Group B’s opener, Niger were surprisingly and instantly competitive when Sidibe Modibo hit the post in the fourth minute with a curling shot across pony-tailed goalkeeper Kidiaba.
Congo did carve Niger open in the 13th minute as Mbokani was alone deep in the penalty area from a cross and could control and shoot, forcing a super one-handed save from Daouda.
As the game swung back and forth, Mohamed Soumalia latched onto an error from Congo’s initially shaky defence, but pushed a shot from distance out to the right when he had a chance to bear down on goal.
Congo had a second clear chance when the ball fell kindly for Yousuf Mulumbu from a rebound in the 35th minute. His side-footed shot went some way wide of the right post with Daouda’s goal exposed.
Daouda was becoming a priceless player for Niger as he pulled off another fantastic stop – this time with an elbow – three minutes before halftime when Mbokani was again clear of his markers right in front of the Niger goal.
Boosted by their goalkeeper’s performance, Niger found momentum in the early part of the second half and captain Moussa Maazou’s shot stung the hands of Kidiaba in the 54th and deflected out for a corner.
The skipper had another good opening two minutes later before two desperate defenders blocked his shot from the top of the box. Then, in the 60th, his header wasn’t quite strong enough to beat Kidiaba.