Depleted Bafana on the back foot

It never rains but it pours for poor Bafana Bafana coach Joel Santana. His hopes of using the trip to Europe as a springboard to bounce back from the miserable 3-1 loss to Serbia last month almost vanished this week as he left to face Germany in Leverkussen on Saturday with a depleted squad.

Talisman Teko Modise, first choice goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, central defender Matthew Booth, right back Bryce Moon and the dependable Macbeth Sibaya were forced to miss the trip because of injuries.
The best of teams in the world would struggle without five of their regulars, but for a Bafana side thin on quality even at full strength, this is a train smash.

Germany is known to take no prisoners in its backyard and has already issued a warning ahead of the clash. “We have to play games to show that our top spot ahead of Russia [in the World Cup qualifiers] is justified,” Chelsea star midfielder Michael Ballack, who is Germany’s captain, told his country’s news agency SID. One of the games they intend to use to send their message out is the Bafana encounter.

The odds already favoured the 2006 World Cup finalists before the misfortune that has befallen Santana’s camp. Germany is ranked fourth in the world to Bafana’s 72nd. The German team has won the World Cup three times—in 1954, 1974 and 1990—to place them as the prestigious tournament’s third-best performers ever. Only Brazil, with five titles, and defending world champions Italy (four) can boast a better history.

This weekend in Leverkussen, Bafana face a German side that has blended youth and experience with devastating effect. They sit comfortably at the top of Group Four with 19 points from seven games. The only blot on their campaign copybook so far is a 3-3 draw against Finland last year. They have scored an impressive 20 goals while only conceding four—a feat that has all but confirmed their place in the 2010 World Cup finals.

Besides the undoubted talents of Ballack, Bafana will have to contend with a host of other world-class players on Saturday.

Without the services of Booth’s 1,99m frame at the back, Santana desperately needs an answer to Germany’s ferocious attack, led by Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski. Klose’s imposing 1,82m presence has been central to his tucking away 45 goals from 89 caps for his country. Podolski’s record of 33 goals is not too shabby either.

Still, this should be a great workout for Bafana, who are keen on stepping up their World Cup preparations against formidable opposition. “We have to play the very best before next year,” Santana told reporters. “These are very important games for us, not only in terms of testing our technical and tactical abilities, but also with regard to what we will need in future games. We need to get a lot of international experience.”

At least in Germany the national coach’s wish for a measure of the work he has put in will be granted. The untimely injuries in the camp have presented players such as Clifford Ngobeni, 21-year-old Belgium-based defender Anele Ngongca, Lance Davids and Bloemfontein goalkeeper Shuaib Walters a rare chance to lay a claim for a place in the team before next year.

Franklin Cale, Nassief Morris and even Benni McCarthy are among players who may be tempted, with good reason, to doubt Santana’s repeated assertions that the door is still open for players to be called up. Cale is arguably the most consistent player at present, but has been once again inexplicably overlooked.

There is little to suggest that, barring injury to his squad, any other player would be asked to join the team for the match against Ireland on Tuesday.

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