Brave Bafana need experience injection to finish the job
Had South Africa been offered four points from an away trip to Sudan and a home game with African champions Nigeria at the start of the Nations Cup qualifiers, there is little doubt they would have grabbed them with unbridled enthusiasm.
It means the opening two preliminaries in the bid to qualify for Morocco can be considered a success, although progress to next January’s finals is still a long way off.
After beating Sudan 3-0 last Friday and then drawing with Nigeria in Cape Town on Wednesday, South Africa now have a double-header with Congo – away in Pointe-Noire first on October 10 and then home, likely in Nelspruit but still to be confirmed, five days later.
It will be a strenuous exercise for Bafana Bafana, whose young outfit have given fans hope but lived precariously at times through the two games, with a tough journey still ahead.
Coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba made it clear after Wednesday’s goalless encounter with the title holders that he is not likely to make too many changes.
But he will be best served pondering on some proper reinforcement as he digests his first week of work over the next days, if he wants to add to the points tally and push closer to ensuring a top two finish in the group that will see South Africa through to the finals.
Wednesday night’s game in a chilly Cape Town was full of pulsating enthusiasm, dominated by the brilliance of Andile Jali, but also starkly naive at times and overambitious on the back of an unexpectedly easy win in Sudan just days earlier.
The midfield was spot-on with Jali and Dean Furman outmuscling the likes of John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi, who play at Chelsea and Lazio respectively, but Sibusiso Vilakazi found it much tougher against the strong physical presence that the Super Eagles defence posed than he did in gliding effortlessly through Sudan’s back four last Friday.
Mandla Masango’s contribution on the flank was again of a lightweight nature and Bongani Ndulula is not the answer in attack, again suggesting that the new policy of only picking players aged 26 and younger need not be slavishly followed.
If Mashaba is going to stick with the nucleus of his starting XI, he will be well served by beefing up the squad and allowing himself more convincing options off the bench, instead of the ridiculousness of including players who haven’t even kicked or saved a ball in the Premier Soccer League yet.
In defence, for example, taking one of Tefu Mashamaite or Thabo Nthethe to the Congo as cover, and ensuring the third-choice goalkeeper can actually slot in if needed, is essential for what will be a tough trip.
A more gradual approach to phasing out players is needed at this juncture, allowing someone like the 28-year-old Bernard Parker to lead the attack now that he has returned from ankle surgery.
There must be place too for May Mahlangu on the flank and Thulani Serero, who offers several attacking options.
The precarious nature of the Nations Cup qualifiers has been laid bare by the multitude of shock results over the first two rounds. Egypt and Zambia are both recent winners but are floundering already, whereas Cameroon, after an embarrassingly poor World Cup, have rebounded in spectacular style from their Brazilian misadventure.
In Bafana’s group, Congo have certainly muddied the waters with their win over Nigeria, who as a result now become even more dangerous.
Sudan, quarterfinalists in the 2012 finals, were surprisingly awful and will surely supply South Africa with at least three more points when they come to these shores in November.
To get to 10 points, therefore, which should be enough to qualify, means Mashaba’s men must win one of the two games next month against the enigmatic Congolese. That calls for a little more thought on the selection process to give the country its best possible chance.