Bafana Bafana gave the 2013 Orange Africa Cup of Nations the lift it was desperately in need of when the tournament hosts deservedly beat Angola 2-0 in a Group A clash played at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on Wednesday evening.
Big tournaments of the nature of Africa's premier football competition need the home teams to do well. After the first round of Group a matches, supporters of South Africa were a nervous bunch going into the clash with the Sable Antelopes, especially as the Angolans had looked a touch better than Morocco in their opening goalless draw, but by the end of the game most of the questions and doubts about the South African side were forgotten.
Coach Gordon Igesund had made five changes from the team that started the opening match against Cape Verde, and not one of the new men let him down as South Africa delivered a far more rounded and effective performance.
Dean Furman's inclusion was a masterstroke. He played in front of the back four, brought stability to the midfield, and his fine positional play led to him picking up plenty of loose balls and put him in position to make tackles.
With the middle of the field stable, South Africa was able to look wide to Anele Ngongca and Tsepo Masilela at the back and Thuso Phala and Bernard Parker up front. All four saw plenty of ball and all four played good games.
At the back, Siyabonga Sangweni was a rock, defending with composure alongside captain Bongani Khumalo, whose only blemish was conceding a free kick right outside the box after he was caught a touch out of position. On the whole, however, the two central defenders were solid as could be and between them they kept Angola's captain Manucho, a dangerous striker, very quiet.
In the midfield, May Mahlangu showed good vision with some insightful passes, but was surprisingly substituted at the break, while up front Katlego Mphela looked a little rusty, but made a nuisance of himself.
Right back Lunguinha looked to get forward whenever he could for Palancas Negras and initiated a number of good moves down the right flank. Most of the Angolan players had middling games, though, as hard work by the South African midfielders and forwards cut down the spaces and often forced a change of possession.
The match began with the crowd still filing in. The 17:00 start meant many people didn't get away from work early enough to see the kick off, but the South African goals, scored in the 30th and 61st minutes ensured the home supporters were in good cheer and by the end of the contest they were in hearty voice.
The pitch looked a little heavy, slow and uneven, but ultimately it was decent enough and the game itself turned into a fair spectacle.
Angola were the first to fire a meaningful shot on goal when Mateus blasted away from the right across the face of goal. South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune got a light touch on it and the ball went behind. The referee awarded a goal kick, which was the first of a number of decisions that he and his crew got wrong on the night.
In the early going, too much of the play took place in the air, which made the contest a little scrappy, but it soon settled down.
Phala narrowly missed Khumalo and Mphela with a free kick in the ninth minute and Furman had a shot blocked on the top of the box after the home team had worked a nice corner variation. He was everywhere in the early going, providing the link between backs and forwards, just like a good midfielder should.
A shot by Mphela in the 16th minute struck Rantie right in front of goal. Rantie was blown up for being offsides (which he wasn't) but a defender, nonetheless, managed to hack the ball clear. A minute later Rantie let rip with a left-footed shot, but it passed harmlessly across the goal mouth, looking more like a pass than a shot.
Mphela sounded a warning to the Angolans two minutes later when he just beat Lama to the ball. Unfortunately for the striker, in the battle for the ball, it came off of him last and went over the line for a goal kick.
It was all South Africa as the Bafana players put Angola under heavy pressure when they picked up possession and Igesund's charges continued to press forward.
After a fine build-up, Mphela received the ball in a good position the box. He should have shot with his left foot but instead passed to Rantie, whose shot was very poor, flying high over the goal.
In the 30th minute, Phala was fouled by Dani Massunguna on the right. The Platinum Stars' man popped up and quickly took the free kick, passing it towards Mphela in the box. It was too high for the striker and too high for Lunguinha as well, who managed only to knock it high and just behind him.
Sangweni, meanwhile, had made a run into the box as two Angolan defenders stood ball watching. He met the ball on the volley with his left foot and fired across Lama into the opposite corner to give South Africa a 1-0 lead. One could sense the relief in Igesund, his support crew, the players and the supporters that Bafana Bafana had finally scored their first Afcon goal since the 2004 tournament in Tunisia.
Two minutes later, Manucho tested Khune with a diving header from a corner, but the South African net-minder blocked the shot with his body and knocked it behind for a corner.
Phala almost broke free at the other end of the field, but the cover defence nipped the ball away from him. Mahlangu followed up with a nice run from deep, but scuffed his shot wide to the goalkeeper's right.
Five minutes from the break, Bafana were almost caught out by the slow surface, but Khune came out of his box to header the ball away under pressure from Manucho.
Bernard Parker had the final shot of the half, forcing a save out of Lama low to his right, and South Africa went into the break a goal to the good after an impressive first half showing.
South African coach Igesund brought on Reneilwe Letsholonyane for Mahlangu at the start of the second half. Angola wanted to bring on Djalma Campos too, but had to do so in the first minute after the fourth official was a little tardy in alerting the referee, much to the anger of coach Gustavo Ferrin.
Greater attacking intent
The Angolans clearly exhibited far greater attacking intent than they had in the first half, but the South African players worked hard to close them down.
In the 50th minute, Massunguna was shown a yellow card for a reckless challenge on Rantie, whom he had fouled on a couple of occasions in the first half.
Two minutes later, after an excellent build-up initiated by Lunguinha, Mateus was set free down the right flank. He crossed to Afonso's feet, but Afonso's shot was stopped by Khune, who dropped down to his left to stop the goal-bound effort.
Shortly after that, Mphela found Furman by knocking the ball back out of the Angolan box and the midfielder's curling shot towards the goalkeeper's right hand corner forced a fine save out of Lama.
In the 58th minute, Igesund introduced Kaizer Chiefs' striker Lehlohonolo Majoro, the leading goal scorer in the Premier Soccer League with his Bafana Bafana team-mate Bernard Parker. Igesund was soon rewarded.
Angola put South Africa under pressure when they created a two-on-two situation, but after that attack was defused Letsholonyane picked out Majoro with a pinpoint long pass. The striker took the ball deep into the Angolan box, cut back out to create an angle, and then beat Lama through his legs to double South Africa's advantage and give the home fans room to breathe and to really enjoy the game.
Seeking a goal, Ferrin sent on veteran Gilberto, who had made his international debut against South Africa in 1999 as a 16 year old, to replace Dede.
The industrious Lunguinha played a nice one-two to open up space for himself, but his shot was straight at Khune, who dealt with it comfortably.
Wide under pressure
Majoro did well to nick the ball away from an Angolan defender and Mphela fought strongly to gain control of it. He then crossed onto Majoro's right foot, but Majoro was wide of the left-hand post with his shot under pressure from a defender.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Khumalo conceded a free kick for holding Afonso right on the edge of the penalty area. It was a chance for Angola to pull a goal back, but Gilberto's left-footed shot hit the wall and went behind for a corner.
Shortly after that, Igesund made his final substitution, bringing on midfielder Oupa Manyisa for Mphela, a striker, which underlined the coach's determination to finish the match with at least a two-goal cushion.
Angola were trying hard to play more attacking football than they had in the opening 45 minutes, but time after time they were forced to stop and pass back, thus losing momentum, because of the hard work put in by the South African forwards and midfield.
With six minutes to play, Lingunya crossed after South Africa had cleared a ball from the middle of the box. He picked out Manucho, but the tall striker failed to get enough on the header and Khune saved.
Amaro came on for Afonso and Manucho soon got onto the end of another cross, but his header was from the edge of the box and was easily dealt with by Khune.
In the 89th minute, Masilela mishit a clearance from an Angolan free kick, but Khune was on hand to gather. He then picked out Majoro with a long ball. The striker attempted to lob Lama, but his effort was a little too strong and went over the opposition's crossbar.
Deep into time added on, Majoro was taken off on a stretcher for treatment. Moments later, the final whistle sounded. Igesund was happy, the crowd was happy, and the tournament had received the injection it needed.
Bafana Bafana circled the field to thank the crowd and the fans responded with loud cheers.
Bafana Bafana celebrate a goal in their 2-0 win over Angola in a 2013 Orange Africa Cup of Nations clash played at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 23 January 2013 (Photo: Confederation of African Football)
A Bafana Bafana fan shows his appreciation for South Africa's national football team (Photo: Craig Strachan, Notes from the Cape)