Rain could level Afcon odds

2013-01-19 00:00

BAFANA Bafana will kick off the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tonight when they host Cape Verde in front of a sold-out 88 000-seater National Stadium in Soweto.

It is a match of huge significance to Bafana’s ambitions of progressing to the knockout stages of the tournament, and nothing short of a win will satisfy fans who have been extremely critical of their team’s performance over the last year.

It has been a tough few days for national coach Gordon Igesund, who fell out with media earlier in the week and has attracted harsh criticism in the press.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get worse for Igesund and his heavily unfancied squad, the weather gods have thrown a spanner in the works with the news that heavy rain and the possibility of flash floods are expected in Johannesburg today.

During a training session at Orlando Stadium at 11 am yesterday, Igesund turned his head towards the dark skies and the ominous sound of rolling thunder.

Just 15 minutes later the heavens had opened and a focused Bafana squad were forced to continue in the steady rain, which hadn’t let up by late yesterday afternoon.

The pitch at the National Stadium is known for not having the best drainage, but what will be a bigger worry for Igesund is that rain has the potential to level any football match.

With so much being said about Bafana’s inability to score in the build-up to the tournament, Igesund has devoted much of this week to working on set pieces — an area where the big men at the back can get forward — and if this is where Bafana are looking to score their goals then the fact that rain is expected shouldn’t matter.

While Igesund may have had more downs than ups with critics after two uninspiring warm-up matches against Norway (0-1) and Algeria (0-0), he clearly has the support of his players.

A figure of concentration and focus at yesterday’s session, captain Bongani Khumalo is aware of what a big day today is for him. At just 26, Khumalo will lead Bafana in their quest to emulate the side that won the tournament on home soil in 1996.

“We are very lucky to have a fantastic coach and a great technical team,” Khumalo said. “Personally I feel that this is a great honour and privilege — one of the greatest moments in my career.”

What the 1996 tournament showed, and the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa to some extent underlined, is that home ground advantage can play a massive part in elevating the performance of a side — something that Khumalo is only too aware of.

“It is fantastic that the stadium is a sellout and that is definitely our main advantage,” he said.

“Having that many people behind you can really give motivation to a player and make him perform beyond his potential.”

The home support has also made Igesund’s pre-match team talk a lot simpler.

“Playing in front of that many people is motivation enough, so I don’t think I will have to say very much before the game.”

Where Igesund’s influence will be seen most is in how Bafana set up structurally and tactically.

While recent performances have seen Katlego Mphela and company struggle in front of goal, Igesund has at least manufactured a side that is compact and defends as a cohesive unit.

Kagisho Dikgacoi has recovered from a twisted knee and will be expected to shield his back four in a holding midfield role today, but who Igesund selects to play alongside him could determine how creative Bafana are on attack.

England-based Dean Furman is one option, but the Oldham Athletic midfielder — while a hard worker — hasn’t shown enough to suggest that he will be able to unlock defences regularly enough.

Reneilwe Letsholonyane is probably the preferred choice for Igesund, but where most interest lies is in how the coach chooses to use Ajax Amsterdam star Thulani Serero. Now fully recovered from injury, Serero is widely regarded as Bafana’s most creative attacking threat and, if selected, will play just behind Mphela or Bernard Parker up front.

With the semi-finals being Safa’s target for Igesund, the pressure is firmly on the four-time PSL winner to succeed. He knows this, and hopes to thrive under it.

But if Bafana are to defy the odds and make it back to Soweto for the final on February 10, then victory against a team that is making its Afcon debut is an absolute must.

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