Gabon galloped to a 2-0 win over outclassed debutants Niger on Monday to get their Africa Cup of Nations campaign off to the ideal start.
The co-hosts took a potentially major step toward a quarter-final berth with first-half headers from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Stephane Nguema.
Gabon’s German coach Gernot Rohr praised his players for what he described as “a first step” toward the quarter-finals.
“We won, we played well, but more difficult teams than Niger lie ahead,” Rohr said. “I hope we can continue on this path. I’m pleased as we didn’t concede a goal, didn’t pick up any injuries and only got one booking.”
His Niger counterpart Harouna Doula said: “We knew this first match was going to be difficult because Gabon have been developing and they are the co-hosts.”
“We became a little unbalanced, had lots of problems, but now we are going to forget this match and concentrate on the next two,” he said.
The venue for Monday’s Group C double-header, Morocco faced Tunisia later, was the brand new Stade de l’Amitie.
The 40,000-seater ground was hastily built by the Chinese as “plan B” after work on restoring the national stadium, originally intended as the venue for Cup games in Libreville, began too late.
Rohr elected to start with former captain Daniel Cousin, returning after a lengthy layoff, on the bench with his attack led instead by French-based duo Aubameyang and Eric Mouloungui.
Gabon, who beat Cameroon in their opening game in 2010, but failed to make the last eight, were quick out of the blocks, winning three corners with the sound of the starting whistle still hanging in the hot and humid equatorial air.
Niger’s defense was at sixes and sevens in the face of the onslaught, goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda the busiest man on the field.
Niger, experiencing a baptism of fire on their Cup of Nations debut, were having trouble getting a slice of the action, their frustration boiling over in the 22nd minute when Issoufou Alhassane Dante sliced down Charly Moussono, earning him a booking.
Gabon got just reward for their dominance in the 30th minute when the omnipresent Aubameyang rose to head home Nguema’s cross from the right wing.
Doula made what looked like a tactical substitution when replacing striker Dante with midfielder Yacouba Ali, but on the stroke of halftime Gabon had doubled their advantage.
Nguema was the man responsible, heading in from close range after Daouda had been unable to hold on to Aubameyang’s header.
Gabon’s No. 1 fan, President Ali Bongo and his first lady sporting the country’s yellow shirt, joined the rest of the crowd in leaping ecstatically out of their seats.
The tempo inevitably descended a few notches after the restart, as conditions began to take their toll, the play becoming disjointed as Gabon took up almost permanent residency in Niger’s half.
Niger’s sole chance came in the final 10 minutes when Ouwo Moussa Maazou headed low into Gabon skipper and goalkeeper Didier Ovono’s hands.