Posted by World Soccer News on
Tunisia's Slim Ben Achour (L) challenges Angola's Andre during an international match on May 27. Angola face Nigeria on June 18 knowing a draw will keep them top of Group 4 and within sight of reaching the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
A place at the 2006 World Cup in Germany seemed a distant prospect for Angola less than two years ago after a disastrous start to their qualifying campaign.
But the Palancas Negros (Black Antelopes) face Nigeria in Kano on Saturday knowing a draw will keep them top of Group 4 and within sight of a first appearance at the quadrennial international football showcase.
A key figure behind the change of fortune is coach Luis Oliviera Goncalves, who replaced sacked Brazilian Ismael Kurtz and inherited a squad demoralised by a 3-1 loss at minnows Chad.
Angola won the return match 2-0 via goals from Fabrice 'Akwa' Maieco and Bruno Mauro to squeeze into the round-robin phase on away goals. The organisers did not fancy the Antelopes, though, ranking them fourth in a six-team pool.
After starting with a creditable draw in Algeria, a shock 1-0 home win over top seeds Nigeria with Qatar-based striker 'Akwa' snatching the late winner lifted Angola to the top of the table.
Victories over Rwanda and Zimbabwe in Luanda and a draw in Gabon kept them there before a 2-0 loss in Zimbabwe saw the surprise packets surrender first place to the Nigerian Super Eagles.
Angola beat Algeria in the seventh series of matches this month while Nigeria could only draw at bottom-of-the-table Rwanda, leaving the frontrunners level on 14 points, but Angola first because of the head-to-head record.
Now a country 43 places below Nigeria on the world rankings sense they can cling to top spot and deny Nigeria a fourth consecutive appearance at the World Cup.
"We can make it to Germany. We have world-class players who boast the experience to win our remaining games," says Portugal-based striker Santos 'Freddy' Frederico, referring to Nigeria, Gabon (home) and Rwanda (away).
Goncalves is more cautious: "Beating Algeria this month was a massive morale boost for all Angolans, but our greatest challenge lies ahead. Nigeria will be formidable opponents in Kano."
Modest away form must concern the coach with Angola winning just four of 22 qualifiers since 1984 when they launched the first of six challenges for a World Cup place. Among nine losses was a 1-0 reverse in Lagos.
When it comes to 2006 World Cup qualifiers, Angola sparkle and struggle during the second half, scoring eight of 10 goals and conceding seven of eight after half-time.
A timely boost has been the return after a three-year injury-induced absence of striker Pedro 'Mantorras' Manuel, who helped Benfica win the league title in Portugal this season.
Manuel, whose honours include being voted best young footballer in Africa, came on as a second-half substitute against Algeria two weeks ago to rapturous applause in the Citadela Stadium.
Such is the competition for places that he is likely to start on the bench again against Nigeria with 'Akwa' and equally experienced Flavio Amado from Luanda club Petro Atletico the preferred strike force.
Qualification for the World Cup would strike an enormous blow for football in the former Portuguese colony, one of a few African countries where basketball is the most popular sport.
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