South Africa Under-23 coach Owen da Gama was a relieved man after watching his team overcome Zambia 3-2 in their Olympic qualifier in Dakar on Tuesday.
The result means the South Africans will go into their final match of the group stages well aware of what is needed for the team to proceed to the semi-finals of the CAF U23 Africa Cup of Nations taking place in Senegal.
Senegal, who ousted Da Gama’s men 3-1 in the opening match, beat Tunisia 2-0 in the other Group A match on the day, leaving the hosts top of the group on six points, three more than second placed South Africa and the third-placed north Africans.
Zambia is bottom of the table with no points after two losses in the tournament and have no chance of making it to the last four.
“It was very important that we get over our first game, which was always going to be very difficult playing against the hosts who have a quality team,” the coach said. “Once we were done with that match we started to have a greater understanding of what was needed.
“Another important factor is that we have won six of our last seven matches and perhaps the players were a little overconfident and complacent, and maybe it was a blessing in disguise that we lost because in the tournament it is not how you start but how you finish.
“Ideally, it is good to start strong and finish stronger, sometimes teams get better as the tournament progresses and peak at the right time, so we still haven’t reached our potential.
“Yes, we have scored three goals, but we still haven’t played the way we know how to play. Hopefully the next game will be a little bit better.”
Da Gama refused to single out the availability of Orlando Pirates duo Menzi Masuku and Gift Motupa as the main reason for victory. Both were unavailable for the first game as they were on club duty for the Bucs.
“It is important that we don’t overstate that because at the end of the day we are not looking for excuses as to why we lost the first game, we had confidence in all the players but you have to understand that Masuku and Motupa are an integral part of this team,” he explained.
“When we played a friendly against Tanzania, Motupa scored two, against Egypt Masuku scored the winning goal, and also when we beat Sudan Masuku scored the winner.
“So these are players that score goals for us. They understand how the rest of the team functions and the machinery was just in place against Zambia, and that is why they are so important for the u23 National Team.”
Senegal have now qualified for the next round while the battle for the other spot is between South Africa and Tunisia, who clash on Friday in Mbour
Kickoff is at 17h00 South African time.
The winner between South Africa and Tunisia will join the hosts in the last four, while a draw will see South Africa go through.
“It is lovely to be going into the final group stages match and your fate is still in your own hands,” Da Gama added. “Yes, some would have said a draw between Senegal and Tunisia would be better, but I think the win for Senegal makes a strong point that whoever wins between Tunisia and South Africa will go through.”
The South African U23 squad travels to Mbour on Thursday.