PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- Ghana's Mubarak Wakaso scored, was suspended and then carried off on a stretcher yet ultimately put the revived title contender in control of Group B at the African Cup of Nations on Thursday.
Wakaso buried a 38th-minute spot kick to beat Mali 1-0, lifting Ghana to the brink of the quarterfinals when the group's two big teams were let off the hook by a 0-0 draw between Congo and Niger at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Young winger Wakaso was shown his second yellow of the group stage after lifting his shirt to reveal a religious slogan in his goal celebration, ruling him out of the final group game.
But by the time he was carried off with what didn't appear to be a serious injury, Ghana had done enough to lead Mali by a point ahead of the final group games.
"There's much more to offer," Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah said as the Black Stars began to show their potential.
Congo missed the chance to put pressure on the top teams after its goalless draw with stubborn Niger, which was saved by goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, who redeemed himself against Congo after his glaring error gifted Mali victory when the teams met in the first round.
Ghana's relief contrasted with Congo's frustration at not being able to take advantage of a defensive Niger approach despite two glorious chances for striker Dieumerci Mbokani.
"We didn't play well. We have to be honest," Congo coach Claude Le Roy said.
After seven draws in the opening 12 games of the African Cup, the tournament finally began to take shape with Ghana joining South Africa as the likely teams to qualify top of the first two groups for a place in the quarterfinals.
Defending champion Zambia will meet Nigeria on Friday to determine who will put itself in position from Group C.
Ethiopia plays Burkina Faso in the day's other match, with Ethiopia coach Sewnet Bishaw holding out hope that his underdog team may still be able to influence the tournament beyond the group stage after a morale-boosting draw with defending champion Zambia to start.
"Even though we are new, we are here to challenge every team. As long as we are here as a strong team, why can't we go to the cup final?" Sewnet said.
With Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan choosing not to take penalties at this tournament following his string of painful misses, the 22-year-old Wakaso stepped up to sweep home for the only goal of the first game in Port Elizabeth. His celebration, when he lifted his jersey over his head to reveal the words "Allah is Great!" on a t-shirt, may still have negative repercussions for Ghana, however, because FIFA does not allow religious or political statements on the field.
The Ghanaians still had enough to hold off Mali and banish memories of their slump against Congo, when they threw away a two-goal lead.
"There was no loss of concentration during this game," Appiah said.
On Friday, 2012-winning coach Herve Renard leads his Zambia team against Nigeria after both let in late equalizers in their first games. With both under significant pressure to win, Renard still welcomed the challenge of being an international manager.
"This is why we are doing our job -- because we need a challenge, we need adrenaline," Renard said.
With the host nation deliriously happy on Wednesday after its win over Angola, South Africa's joy was tempered on Thursday by more injury problems. Striker Lehlohonolo Majoro had a deep gash to his left leg to likely rule him out of Bafana Bafana's final and crucial Group A game against Morocco.
Elsewhere, Tunisia forward Issam Jemaa was out for the remainder of the tournament with a knee injury that would probably sideline him for six weeks.