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By Mike Collett
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Ghana took a significant step towards the quarter-finals and Niger secured their first ever point as the African Nations Cup continued to unfold like a slow-moving drama rather than a Hollywood thriller on Thursday.
The only goal on the sixth day of the tournament came from a Ghanaian penalty in their 1-0 win over Mali at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
While there were no goals in the draw there between Niger and Democratic Republic of Congo later, the day was not without its entertainment with Group B intriguingly poised as it enters the final round of group games.
Ghana are top with four points from their two games, followed by Mali (3), DR Congo (2) and Niger (1) with Niger meeting Ghana in Port Elizabeth on Monday and Mali facing the Congolese on the same night in Durban.
All four teams are in with a chance of making the last eight and although it would be a surprise if Ghana did not make it, both Mali and DR Congo will believe they can make it through too.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi and his Zambia counterpart Herve Renard, winners of the title as a player and coach respectively, agreed that one reason for the increasingly close-fought games is that the best teams in Africa are being caught up by the lesser lights - and Thursday's events bore out their opinions.
Niger, who lost all three games on their debut in the finals in 2012 and then lost their opening match in this competition 1-0 to Mali on Sunday, more than matched DR Congo for effort, skills and shots on goal.
They also squandered a fourth minute chance to take the lead when Modibo Sidibe fired against the post with only goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba to beat.
DR Congo, with a far greater tournament pedigree and the more experienced players, came back strongly and twice the mercurial Anderlecht striker Dieumerci Mbokani should have added to the goal he scored in the 2-2 draw with Ghana on Sunday.
His two excellent efforts were saved by Niger keeper Daouda Kassaly, who had an outstanding game.
"It's a missed opportunity. It was possible for us to move forward. We have to concede that after we missed the two chances we did not play well," said Congo coach Claude Le Roy.
Ghana's quest for an elusive fifth title and their first since 1982, remains on track as they followed up their opening draw with DR Congo with Thursday's victory.
It was never going to be easy for them against a Mali side who finished third in the finals a year ago and came into the match after their opening 1-0 win over Niger.
In the end all that separated the sides was a 38th minute penalty converted by 22-year-old Mubarak Wakaso, who had a match to remember for good and bad reasons.
After sweeping his penalty home way out of the reach of Mali keeper Mamadou Samassa, he lifted up his shirt in celebration to reveal a t-shirt bearing the slogan "Allah Is Great" and was immediately shown a yellow card by Ivory Coast referee Noumandiez Doue.
No religious slogans of any sort are allowed to be displayed by any player.
He was also booked in Ghana's first game so will miss Monday's match against Niger, but he might not be fit to play anyway as he was carried off with a leg injury before the end.
While the circus moves back to Nelspruit on Friday where champions Zambia face heavyweights Nigeria and Burkina Faso play Ethiopia in an open Group C, the tournament statistics bear out the slow-moving narrative of the competition.
Of the 12 matches played to date, seven have ended in draws, three of them goalless. No team has scored more than twice and only hosts South Africa have won by a two-goal margin. (Editing by Mark Meadows)