Day eight of the 2006 FIFA World Cup finishes with something of a David and Goliath clash as the second wave of Group D matches gets underway.
World Cup regulars Mexico, buoyed by their impressive opening 3-1 over Iran, meet first-time qualifiers Angola in Hanover.
Mexico have never faced Angola, but their record against African opposition stands up well – ten victories in fifteen contests – and they will hopeful of taking themselves to the brink of second-round qualification by claiming all three points this evening.
With Group D favourites Portugal awaiting Mexico in the final group match next week they will be anxious to reduce the potential importance of that game by defeating the African minnows.
Best prepared team
It can be argued that Mexico are the best-prepared team of all the nations at the World Cup Finals, having played some 26 matches in 2005 during the run-up to the finals. Other national team coaches will have cast envious glances at Mexico’s Argentine boss Ricardo Lavolpe – the total of games played last year is more than double of most of the European qualifiers.
Lavolpe won four international caps as a goalkeeper for his native country, and took control of Mexico in 2002 after spending many successful seasons in charge of some of Mexico’s best domestic club sides. He has an abrasive reputation, but combines this with a rare tactical flexibility. Despite his outspoken nature, usually reserved for journalists, he is something of a father figure for his players, who regard him as something of a father figure.
The only selection problem facing Lavolpe for this evening’s match is up front, after the Bolton striker Jared Borghetti injured his thigh in the second-half of the win over Iran. His replacement in that match, Cruz Azul’s Francisco Fonseca, is likely to start in Borghetti’s absence alongside Omar Bravo, the two-goal hero of the opening victory.
Bravo is well on the way to becoming a national hero and emulating his hero, former Mexico and Real Madrid striker Hugo Sanchez, after his explosive performance against Iran. His confidence is soaring at the moment, as he told the press on Thursday.
“Nothing makes me happier than scoring goals, and after Sunday my confidence is higher than ever,” he said.
“I was nervous before the game but you expect that at the World Cup. I felt an unusual level of joy when I scored the first goal, but the important thing was to take the lead. I’m looking to achieve great things with Mexico and win the World Cup.”
Focussing on the Angolans, who won a legion of admirers during their narrow defeat to Portugal in their opening match, Bravo was complimentary and insisted that his team would not be taking the Africans lightly.
“We’ve seen videos of their game against Portugal and all their qualifying games,” he said.
“They deserved to qualify and the match tomorrow won’t be easy, but we will play our expansive, high tempo game and we’re hungry for the win. We always try to attack, regardless of who our opponents are.”
World Cup new-boys Angola performed admirably against their former colonial masters despite the 1-0 reverse, and will be hopeful that the Mexicans will provide a slightly less arduous test this evening. Coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves, in charge since late 2003, was pleased with his team’s finals debut in spite of the result.
“We played well even though Portugal started the game better than us,” he said of the 1-0 defeat.
“We showed character and composure to get ourselves into the game. Our first goal was to neutralise Portugal’s key players, and we did that pretty successfully. We now hope we can improve in our second match, which on paper shouldn’t be as challenging as facing Portugal.”
“My players played with pride but we are a humble team. Our main aim is complicate the lives of the major footballing powers at this tournament.”
Despite the widespread respect gained from the result, Goncalves has not been immune from criticism in the last few days. Most of it has come from captain and star striker Fabrice Akwa, who has publicly questioned his coach’s tactics in using him as a lone striker.
“I’d like a strike partner, and I have told the boss,” he said in the aftermath of the defeat by the Portuguese.
“We worry too much about defence rather than concentrating on attack, but I’m not sure what the coach will do. We have Pedro Manuel Mantorras, Amado Flavio, Andre Mateus, who played in midfield against Portugal, and Arsenio Love in our squad. I don’t care which one it is, but I’d like some company.”
Despite his captain’s pleas Goncalves is unlikely to alter his 4-5-1 formation and it looks like the 78-cap Akwa will be asked to plough a lone furrow up front once again this evening. Most observers are predicting that the Angolan boss will not make any changes at all, as the Black Antelopes seek to earn their first ever point at the World Cup Finals.
Goalkeeper Joao Ricardo, currently unattached to any club, is hoping that the performance against Portugal and the praise that him and his team-mates have received in the last few days will give them the confidence to cause an upset.
“The performance on Sunday has given us confidence for the next game,” he said.
“I hope we can be a little more ambitious and a little more positive against Mexico. If we are then we are capable of giving our fans even more joy and pride than they experienced after the Portugal game.”
By Mark Robinson
Angola: Loco, Jamba, Kali, Delgado; Ze Kalanga, Macanga, Figueiredo, Mateus, Mendonca; Akwa
Mexico: Sanchez; Mendez, Marquez, Osorio, Salcido; Pineda, Perez, Zinha, Pardo; Fonseca, Bravo
Referee: Shamsul Maidin (Singapore)