Crunch time for Bafana

2008-09-05 00:00

EVEN if Bafana Bafana do not manage to qualify for the 2010 African Nations Cup in Angola, a win in this afternoon’s qualifier against Nigeria at the EP Rugby Stadium in Port Elizabeth still seems of utmost importance.

A first victory for South Africa over the Super Eagles in five competitive meetings would significantly lift the confidence of the national team and its beleaguered coach, Joel Santana.

Of course it would be preferable for Bafana to take part in Angola 2010. But the reality is that even if South Africa beat Nigeria, and then Equatorial Guinea away on October 10, they still may not progress to the final qualifying round.

The winners plus eight best runners-up of 12 groups progress to the next round. There the top three teams in five groups qualify for Angola.

At present Bafana are the joint-worst runners-up along with Zambia on four points. Four second-placed teams are already on nine points, two each on seven and six.

South Africa put themselves in a dire situation when they failed to beat Equatorial Guinea away and drew at home to Sierra Leone in qualifiers in June, in the month after Santana took up the job. After Carlos Alberto Parreira’s shock resignation in late April, things gradually fell apart, and now the team must try to mount a rescue mission against a resurgent Super Eagles.

After crashing out of the Nations Cup in Ghana in the quarter-finals, Nigeria sacked German coach Berti Vogts and replaced him with local Shaibu Amodu, in his third stint with the national side. Since then it has all gone right for the team who were Africa’s powerhouse in the 1990s.

Nigeria have strolled through the qualifiers, winning all four games without conceding a goal, to become the first side to reach the next round. Last month, their under-23 team reached the Olympic final in Beijing.

But all is not lost for Bafana. If the national team are ever to beat their nemesis side, then this afternoon might be the occasion.

South Africa come off a 2-2 friendly draw against 39th-ranked Australia in London, where striker Benni McCarthy — whose absence in the July qualifiers helped result in Bafana’s precarious position — set up two goals.

Nigeria, who might be less motivated having already qualified, are missing five key players — strikers Nwankwo Kanu and Obafemi Martins, defenders Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu, and Chelsea midfielder Jon Mikel Obi. South Africa, though, are without their most influential player this year, injured Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.

The feeling in the Bafana camp is that preparations have gone well, prompting Santana, perhaps controversially, to cancel yesterday’s final training session because of rain, saying he did not want to risk players falling ill.

In the absence of suspended Aaron Mokoena, Santana has yet to choose a captain, and will announce his decision only today. The coach appeared to show his hand in training, fielding an apparent shadow starting eleven.

Former captain Mbulelo Mabizela seems set to return for the first time since the disastrous 2006 Nations Cup finals campaign in Egypt, replacing Mokoena in central defence alongside Nasief Morris.

Santana is likely to employ two defensive midfielders again in Kagisho Dikgacoi and MacBeth Sibaya. Siyabonga Nkosi, who scored a cracker against the Socceroos, should be the link-man between the midfield and striker McCarthy.

Despite McCarthy’s return, the game will be won in midfield. Teko Modise and Dikgacoi, who almost signed for Fulham last week, but did not have the required international caps to obtain a work permit, need to dazzle and stamp their authority.

Bafana need a turning point under Santana, and nothing would achieve that better than a first win over the Super Eagles.

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