Senegal's Sadio Mane converted a penalty seven minutes into stoppage time to hand the pre-tournament favourites a 1-0 victory over Zimbabwe at the start of their Africa Cup of Nations campaign in Bafoussam.
Zimbabwe defender Kelvin Madzongwe was penalised for blocking a shot with his hand extended away from his body in the penalty area in a heartbreaking turn of events for his side as they were on the cusp of an upset at the start of Group B action.
Senegal are Africa's top ranked team but had only 18 players available for their opening group match because of the novel coronavirus and injury and despite a lion’s share of possession and opportunities produced a tepid performance.
Senegal’s Boulaye Dia thrashed a shot just wide of the Zimbabwe goal after 40 seconds, suggesting the match might turn out to be a one-sided affair. However, it proved anything but as Zimbabwe came within seconds of an unexpected point.
Mane had one enterprising move down the left flank, tricking his way past two defenders but then hitting his angled effort straight at goalkeeper Petros Mhari in the 24th minute.
Captain Idrissa Gueye had the best effort for Senegal seven minutes from halftime with just the goalkeeper to beat, but his first touch was too heavy as he steadied himself for a shot and the opportunity was lost.
With some 20 minutes to go, Senegal defender Abdou Diallo came close with a headed attempt from a free kick, putting it just over the crossbar.
Zimbabwe were restricted to a handful of counter-attack chances and set piece opportunities, the best of which their captain Knowledge Musona wasted by floating it over the top.
They had been under threat of expulsion before the tournament by FIFA, who warned of a ban after the Zimbabwe Football Association was disbanded by the government, after accusations of fraud, but a deadline to reinstate the association’s executive has passed without any action.
Elsewhere in Group B, Guinea left-back Issiaga Sylla scored a first-half goal to steer his side to a fortunate 1-0 victory over depleted Malawi iat the Kouekong Stadium in Bafoussam on Monday.
Malawi, making a third appearance at the finals and first since 2010, had 13 members of their squad unavailable following a Covid-19 outbreak in their camp, which meant they could only name four players on the bench that included two goalkeepers.
But they missed numerous chances to claim something from the game and were left to rue their profligacy after 35 minutes when Guinea forward Jose Kante teased their defence before sliding a perfect pass for Sylla to score from close range.
Elsewhere on Monday, Sofiane Boufal seized on a loose ball to score seven minutes from time and secure a 1-0 win for Morocco over Ghana in their opening Group C match.
Boufal hammered home from close range after a mazy run into the penalty area from Zakaria Aboukhlal that saw him tease the Ghana defence, only to be checked by Thomas Partey, with the ball then running perfectly for Boufal to score.
The goal came from a rare chance in a game where both sides showed defensive prowess but did little to impress in attack.
Both countries are looking to end a long wait for success in the continental championship but showed little early sign of making an impact at the tournament in Cameroon, admittedly after disrupted preparations.
Boufal's goal did open up a cagey affair and Morocco had two more decent chances as captain Romain Saiss headed wide after an 87th minute free kick and then in stoppage time Ghana’s keeper Joe Wollacott stopped a blistering shot from close range.
Until then, there had only been two opportunities for Ghana.
Joseph Paintsil hit a goal-bound shot towards the top corner in the 70th minute only for Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou to turn the effort around the post.
Ghana also had a good set-piece opportunity in the 31st minute but Partey fired his free kick over the bar.
The victory extended to 10 matches Morocco’s winning streak, including all six World Cup qualifiers played between September and November.
Aaron Boupendza's strike from a narrow angle sealed a dull 1-0 win for Gabon over Africa Cup of Nations debutants Comoros Islands in the same group.
Gabon, who were missing talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and influential midfielder Mario Lemina due to Covid-19 infections, never looked troubled and scored from one of only a few shots on target at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo.
Boupendza rifled the ball into the roof of the net after he was set free in the box by Louis Ameka, giving Gabon their first win at the continental finals since they defeated Burkina Faso 2-0 in the 2015 group stages.