Bafana Bafana's best chance at the Nations Cup is to emerge at the top of group A, but it will take some nifty footwork, argues Carlos Amato.
Bafana Bafana owe Tommy Madigage a farewell gift of a giant step forward. Although there is some debate about what achievement would merit that description, a Nations Cup bronze medal would satisfy many realists.
But to reach the semifinals Bafana should strive at all costs to avoid a hairy date with Ghana in the quarterfinals. To do that, they must win a deceptively treacherous group A, ahead of Morocco, Angola and Cape Verde.
"We must aim to top the group, simply because we want to stay in Durban for the quarterfinal, rather than having to uproot to Port Elizabeth," said a bullish Bafana coach Gordon Igesund this week.
"We don't know who the opponents will be in either case – it could be Ghana or Mali, or even the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Morocco are giants of African football and Angola are always tough. Cape Verde are unknown quantities at the moment, but we'll know a lot about them within a couple of weeks. We'll be watching lots of DVDs. If they beat Cameroon, they can't be pushovers. And the gap between Africa's top sides and the smaller sides is getting closer all the time."
A cursory glance at the Cape Verde squad yields some amusing names, such as the defender Nivaldo Tax and a clubless goalkeeper known aptly as Fock. But Bafana will not be laughing come January 19 at Soccer City. These Sharks have teeth: they netted an average of 2.5 goals per game in the qualifying race with Lille striker Ryan Mendes running amok. Almost all their players are schooled in the hard university of the Portuguese league.
So far, so tricky. Then it's off to Durban to exchange unpleasantries with Angola, who look ominously organised under Uruguayan coach Gustavo Ferrin. He has infused youth into the Palancas Negras and veterans Ze Kalanga, Love, Rui Marques and Flavio Amado are no longer in the selection frame.
Star forward Manucho Goncalves was lethal in the qualifiers and he has made a bright start to this season at newly promoted La Liga outfit Valladolid. It's a mystery why Manucho still has not blown up at club level. Here's hoping he doesn't use Bafana's defence as an advertising platform.
Finally, on January 27, the Atlas Lions will seek to maul Bafana's vulnerable flanks. Their masterful creative midfielders, Younes Belhanda and Adel Taarabt (if selected), will dispatch a stream of cultured crosses and dead balls at a battery of solid aerial finishers in Youssef el-Arabi, Abdelaziz Barrada and Marouane Chamakh.
The crux will be to block that barrage at its source, hence Igesund urgently needs his most seasoned fullbacks – Anele Ngcongca, Siboniso Gaxa and Tsepo Masilela – to be fit for service. New leftback Ricardo Nunes looks the business with the ball at his feet, but his pace and defensive quality is unproven.
"So many players need to come back from injury – guys like Anele, Thulani Serero, Katlego Mphela and Morgan Gould," said Igesund. "But we'll have to see when we're closer to the time. From now on, I have to start being more consistent in my selections, because we need to build a unit.
"So the injured players are not automatic choices – they have to give themselves a chance by playing for their clubs and doing well. They have about eight weeks to do that."