Cameroon played a 1-1 draw with Mali in Yaounde on Saturday to set up a difficult task in their qualification process when they travel to Bamako next week for the return fixture.
The Malians looked a better side on paper with a better possession rate compared to the host, whose stature and moral hardly marched that of their guests all through the game.
Moise Sakava Sangola gave Cameroon the lead on the hour mark from a corner kick. But the hosts hardly had time to jubilate as 'Les Aigthe West Africans retaliated immediately.
A fast play saw Drame Madji outpace his opponents at the right flank, delivering to Diarra Mamadi whose goal bound header was waded out by the host keeper Christophe Assimba. But the loose ball met an onrushing Toure El Bilal, who found the roof of the net for the equalizer two minutes later.
With the support of a section of the huge Malian population in Yaounde, the visitors displayed lots of skill and game management, with their host gasping for breath and held on for a draw.
In a post-match interview, Cameroon coach Christophe Ousmanou said: it was a difficult game, I told my boys it will be tough playing against a team that has been together since the U17 level.
He partly blamed his team's performance on the absence of six of his first choice players, who are chasing professional contracts in Europe, and injuries to captain Carl Ndedi and playmaker Jacques Mbe.
We would have loved to win today, just like we will go to Bamako with our usual steel edged moral to carry the day, Ousmanou concluded.
On his part, Mali coach Mamoutou Kane said he expects his charge to finish the job in Bamako next week.
The game was like the first half of a game, we never wanted to concede a goal but we scored one in our own goal post. We started the job well out here and we will finish it up in Bamako. We are sure of qualification, Kane said.
Source: Confederation Africaine de Football