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By Mike Collett
NELSPRUIT, South Africa, Jan 23 (Reuters) - South Africa closed in on the African Nations Cup knockout stages with a win on Wednesday while debutants Cape Verde Islands narrowly failed to do the same as Group A came alive after its moribund start.
Hosts South Africa got their first win in the finals since 2004 with a fine 2-0 victory over Angola at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban to take top spot in the group on four points.
Goals from defender Siyabonga Sangweni and substitute Lehlohonolo Majoro eased the pressure on coach Gordon Igesund as the team produced a far more convincing display than Saturday's dismal opening 0-0 draw against Cape Verde in Johannesburg.
Igesund made five changes from that side and said: "I took a gamble making so many changes, and the gamble paid off."
Cape Verde, the tiny island nation of just 500,000 making its debut in the finals, came within 12 minutes of what would have been their greatest sporting triumph as they led Morocco 1-0 with the final whistle approaching.
Luis "Platini" Soares scored Cape Verde's first ever goal in the finals but Morocco, who played out a dull 0-0 draw with Angola in their first match, took control after halftime.
They finally made the breakthrough in the 78th minute when substitute Youssef El Arabi swept home a perfect pass from Abdelaziz Barrada.
Although that goal deprived Cape Verde of what would have been the biggest upset of the tournament so far, it was no more than Morocco deserved and left the group finely balanced.
Behind South Africa, Cape Verde and Morocco have with two points and Angola are bottom with one.
Although South Africa are in pole position to qualify, Igesund was not getting ahead of himself.
"We hope we keep the momentum going, but we don't want to get too excited and too carried away," he said.
"I wasn't scared to lose tonight, that's why we went the way we went by making five changes.
"I have said all along we are going to be a hard team to beat. We have kept two clean sheets in this tournament but we know this is not yet in our hands."
South Africa, buoyed by their first victory in the finals since a 2-0 win over Benin nine years ago, face Morocco in their final group match in Durban on Sunday while Cape Verde meet Angola in Port Elizabeth in a battle between the two former Portuguese colonies.
All four teams are still in with a chance of qualifying and not many pundits thought that would be the case before the competition started, dismissing Cape Verde as rank outsiders even though they eliminated Cameroon in the qualifiers.
But on the evidence so far, coach Lucio Antunes' side start as the more fancied team to win when Cape Verde meet Angola.
They took the game to Morocco in the first half, outshooting them by seven goal attempts to one before the break, and although the side faded as the game progressed, Cape Verde looked dangerous for an hour - especially Ryan Mendes, who provided the pass that led to Platini's goal.
"We are now being respected because we played some good football and showed we are not just a little team as you media guys like to call us," Antunes said.
"We have had some good results in the past. We are strong at home, strong away and have some fantastic players." (Editing by Alison Wildey)