Antelopes ready for another Cup leap

The continuous rise of Angola into an African force could reach a new level on Thursday in a top-of-the-table Africa Sup of Nations Group D showdown with leaders Tunisia.

A draw will ensure the Palancas Negras of a place in the knockout phase of the biennial tournament for the first time and confirm that qualification for the 2006 World Cup ahead of fancied Nigeria was no fluke.

Only South Africa, hosts of the next World Cup in 2010, can deprive Angola of a quarterfinals slot and to squeeze through on goal difference they would need to defeat Senegal convincingly in Kumasi and hope Angola lose heavily.

But if the Antelopes continue where they left off when shocking Senegal 3-1 last Sunday, the odds on long-serving coach Luís Oliveira Gonçalves and his squad celebrating another milestone are short.

Appearing at the Nations Cup a fourth time, Angola collected a solitary point in 1996 and two in 1998 before being pipped on goal difference by the Democratic Republic of Congo two years ago for a last-eight spot in Egypt.

Gonçalves told reporters in this northern town that a number of factors have contributed to the sustained improvement of Angola, who will host the next edition of the African football showpiece.

On a continent where bonus rows often disrupt Nations Cup preparations and can spill over into the event, Angolan officials insist on reaching agreement with the squad well in advance.

And while many African government officials stand accused of interfering negatively in the game, Gonçalves says the support his players receive from political leaders is deeply appreciated.

”The first item on our pre-Cup agenda is bonuses and we recall fondly the generosity of the government to those who helped us qualify for the World Cup with each player receiving a house plus cash,” said Gonçalves.

Other key factors are consistency with Gonçalves in charge since late 2003 and an effective scouting system that identifies lower-league players born in Europe of Angolan parents.

None of the 23-strong squad comes from a big-name club, but this appears set to change with a work permit standing between striker Manucho and a three-year contract at English Premiership giants Manchester United.

It is not difficult to see why manager Alex Ferguson took an instant liking for the physically intimidating Angolan as he has scored three times in two outings, including the header and shot that turned the tide against Senegal.

Strike partner Flavio Amado and midfielders Ze Kalanga, Gilberto and Maurito are other influential figures in a team whose Achilles heel may prove to be hesitant goalkeeper Lama.

Former champions Tunisia have been no less impressive than Angola, surviving a Senegalese pounding to snatch a 2-2 draw and proving far too streetwise for a young South Africa side as they punished defensive blunders in a 3-1 victory.

And coach Roger Lemerre can call for the first time on Amine Chermiti, a highly-rated teenage striker from reigning African club champions Etoile Sahel who has attracted the attention of French and Swiss sides.

Add Brazil-born Francileudo dos Santos, Issam Jemaa and Yassine Chikhaoui and Lemerre, the only coach to win the European Championship and African Nations Cup, is spoilt for attacking options.

A brace against South Africa raised the goal haul of Dos Santos to 21, a Tunisian record, and the constant movement of Chikhaoui drove Bafana Bafana to distraction.

Dos Santos, defenders Radhi Jaidi and Karim Hagui and midfielders Jaouhar Mnari and Mehdi Nafti are survivors of the team that defeated Morocco to give 2004 hosts Tunisia their first Nations Cup title. – Sapa-AFP

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