PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AP) – Asamoah Gyan took center stage as Ghana finally announced itself as a valid title contender at the African Cup of Nations with a 3-0 win over Niger on Monday to top Group B and cruise into a quarterfinal against tournament debutant Cape Verde.
Gyan was at the heart of Ghana's flowing victory, giving it the lead in the sixth minute, setting up Christian Atsu in the 23rd and playing a major role in a third from John Boye early in the second half.
Gyan's slow start to the tournament had mirrored Ghana's sluggish early performances, but the four-time champion's title credentials were undeniable at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium against a Niger defense that had conceded just once previously in the group.
''Today was a great day for us. All the players are happy mentally,'' said Gyan, Ghana's captain and striker. ''Their confidence is growing.''
Ghana plays Cape Verde on Saturday back at Nelson Mandela Stadium, while Mali qualified second from the group to set up a last-eight game with host South Africa in Durban, also on Saturday.
Gyan's bullet shot rocked Niger early in Port Elizabeth and his floated cross for Atsu to double the lead effectively ended Niger's slim hopes of qualifying from last place inside 25 minutes of the encounter.
Gyan's dominant header from a free kick eventually led to Boye making it 3-0 four minutes into the second half.
Ghana had been unconvincing in its two previous games, letting slip a 2-0 lead in a 2-2 draw with Congo and just edging Mali 1-0. But this performance showed the Black Stars' attacking threat in abundance, with Gyan, young Porto midfielder Atsu and another newcomer, Albert Adomah, all impressive.
''I would say we are halfway there,'' coach Kwesi Appiah said. ''We can do much better than we did today. I believe we'll be picking (it) up as time goes by.''
Gyan could have easily had a hat trick after hitting a close-range shot straight at Niger goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda in the second half and then pushing a volley from Adomah's cross off target straight after.
Ghana had powered ahead when Adomah's cut back from the right wing found Gyan unmarked. The striker sent a powerful shot into the far left corner and then ran around behind the net, chased by his teammates, to celebrate his first goal of the tournament.
An immediate response from Niger was ruled out by Senegalese referee Badara Diatta for a foul on goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda by Niger skipper Moussa Maazou.
Gyan was at the center of Ghana's near-constant attacking threat, and hit a free kick straight at Daouda in the 22nd minute before creating Atsu's goal a minute later. The skipper again pulled away from his marker and floated a cross to the back post for Atsu to chest down and poke past Daouda for 2-0.
Gyan turned to the large contingent of noisy Ghana fans and punched his chest before chasing away after Atsu.
''I said to myself the right time will come,'' the striker said of his wait to score at the tournament. ''It is the right time.''
Maazou's cross from the right just eluded center forward Sidibe Modibo in the 35th in probably Niger's best opening in the first half.
But with Niger's defense regularly stretched, Boye scrambled in the third goal and sealed Niger's elimination after Gyan rose high at the back post to head a free kick down and off Daouda.
The energetic Gyan also tried an acrobatic overhead kick - but didn't connect - as Ghana's talisman and his team convincingly found their feet at the African Cup.
''I like to play for the team,'' he said. ''People will be expecting me to score but my ambition will be to help my team to win.''