The comeback kids

Carlos Alberto Parreira has warned all along that fans should not have unrealistic expectations for the Bafana Bafana side he has chosen for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations.

Parreira picked a team which he expects to be more competitive in 2010—when South Africa hosts the World Cup. So for Bafana, Ghana is an elaborate classroom lesson. That is why the point—and the goal—against Angola have been so warmly received back home.
But a more arduous task lies ahead.

If Bafana Bafana were thin on experience against Angola, they more than compensated in spirit and patience. A goal down and the clock ticking away against an Angolan side that justified their presence at the last World Cup, Bafana continued unbowed, and a wonder goal by Elrio van Heerden buoyed their spirits ahead of the match against Tunisia on Sunday.

Van Heerden’s goal came in the 88th minute and does not bear the hallmark of goals scored as the clock ticks towards the end of the game.

The right-footed FC Brugge player ran past the Angolan defence going infield and packed a powerful left footer that swerved from Lama, the Angolan keeper.

It was a goal that was worth waiting four years for. The last time South Africa scored a goal in the biennial showpiece was against Morocco when Patrick Mayo scored in a 1-all draw on February 4 2004.

The last campaign in Egypt proved a huge failure despite big talk by self-styled football expert Ted Dumitru, who coached the side. There, Bafana had their worst tournament to date, scoring zero and losing all their three matches.

It is thus strange that, in Ghana, Bafana is missing the gangly brutality of Benni McCarthy, whom the South African Football Association blamed for instigating players’ demands for more money, and dulling their sharpness before and during the tournament.

But with or without McCarthy, it is Bafana’s defence that needs more attention. The central defensive pairing of Benson Mhlongo and Nasief Morris is yet to convince.

While Morris has been pure class, Mhlongo has been suspect. A case for switching Aaron Mokoena from defensive midfield position, or the rudder as Parreira calls it, to his more familiar centre-back position gains more support with each passing match.

This despite the awareness that the national side’s technical team uses Mokoena and Mhlongo in the same roles they play at their clubs.

Against Angola, Mhlongo was often slow, allowing the Angolans to play with confidence in Bafana’s half.

It was no accident that Mhlongo was the one who allowed the ball to go over his head, allowing Flavio, one of the most effective strikers on the continent, the time and space to find teammate Manucho, who headed the ball into the net. One expects the more battle-hardened Tunisians, who are very fast on the break, to punish such ineptitude.

Even though Parreira found many positives to take into the second game, he is acutely aware that the Tunisians are tactically and organisationally a better team than the Angolans, and their dominance of the African club scene is proof of their pedigree.

The South Africa team’s coach told reporters that “we played with a very good spirit in the second half and that has given us hope for the next match.

“When we put the ball on the ground, we created some chances. We have a young team and we were playing against a side that had eight players with World Cup experience. That’s why I’m happy with the performance of my team today.”

Parreira’s satisfaction is unlikely to lull him into false expectations come Sunday.

The 2004 champions, Tunisia, perhaps a shadow of the team that Francileudo Dos Santos led to victory, scraped a draw in a match dominated by Senegal.  But it was the nature of their first goal against Senegal that should be worrying the Bafana coach.

It was a quick goal, against the run of play. Issam Jomaa passed to Wissem Bekri, who launched a wonderful strike from a tight angle.

Tactically, the Tunisians showed a lot of discipline, keeping their shape even in the face of the marauding Senegalese Lions of Teranga. They will probably relish playing against a Bafana midfield whose players enjoy doing tricks with the ball.

If the South African midfield plays to its strengths without exposing the defence, it could draw Tunisia’s defence-minded midfield to the centre, thus creating openings at the back. With better luck and application than in Wednesday’s game, a goal could be the result.

After Wednesday’s sterile finishing in front of the opposition goal, Parreira is hoping for a finish which the partnership of Sibusiso Zuma and Surprise Moriri didn’t provide.

A starting role for Van Heerden would boost his confidence ahead of the match against Senegal, from which South Africa could emerge with a result.

Thembinkosi Fanteni’s time on the pitch should have helped his case for a starting berth against a lethargic Surprise Moriri, who seems to be battling to recapture the form that made him South African player of the year two seasons ago.

And unless Simphiwe Tshabalala starts using his pace and skill on the left for the benefit of the team, Lerato Chabangu would be justified to expect to start.

Perhaps it is just as well that Bafana play Senegal last. With patience and movement along the flanks, Tunisia could be penetrated. Tunisia’s hope is to beat Bafana and then grind a result against Angola.

For now, Bafana have their fortunes in their own hands.

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