Baxter gives us a taste of two Bafanas

Bafana players celebrate after the game during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifying match between Nigeria and South Africa. (Gallo)

Bafana players celebrate after the game during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifying match between Nigeria and South Africa. (Gallo)

Over the course of one week, new coach Stuart Baxter has managed to show the nation two Bafanas. One is a world beater, able to hand out a thrashing to a supremely talented Super Eagles. And that in their own backyard. The other is a faltering chick, stumbling out of its nest and more likely to hit the ground with a thud than take flight.

Bafana’s 2-1 loss to Zambia at Moruleng Stadium near Rustenburg took some of the gloss off of a historic 2-0 victory over Nigeria at the Uyo Stadium. In the Uyo triumph, they defended bravely and struck decisively to stamp their authority over their traditional rivals, offering a hint of their true potential in global football. Critically, the victory was a Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match and immediately puts the national team on the front foot for the rest of the group games.

With a turnaround time of only three days between matches, Baxter used an almost entirely different team against Zambia for the home friendly. Considering the age and level of experience of the Rustenburg Bafana team, it would be best to describe this as the “future”. The soldiers who so bravely put their bodies on the line in Nigeria were given a break with the young guns given a run.

Following an impressive first half in which they not only controlled and dominated their opponents under slippery conditions in Moruleng on Tuesday, they took a deserved lead through Lebo Manyama. Despite the verve and pace on display the scoreboard failed to reflect this first half domination. Though the second half started much the same way, this is a game of 90-plus minutes, and it’s in the fourth stanza that Baxter’s young charges went awry. The home team conceded two soft goals in short succession that ended their 18-match unbeaten run.

This left Baxter slightly disappointed, although he unsuccessfully tried to mask his feelings by claiming that they learned a few valuable lessons on “how not to play”, adding that had they been a little sharper in front of goal, a draw would have been a fair outcome.

“We showed in the second half that we cannot switch off,” moaned Baxter in a post-match interview with the SABC. “We have to keep doing the right things and when we don’t do that, instead of being a threat to the opposition, we’re a threat to ourselves.”

This is the old malady that had afflicted the national team in the past where they had either failed to “kill off” a match or lost concentration at critical moments of the game and ended up losing or drawing a match they had completely controlled and dominated.

“But I am pleased with the first half performance and the last 15 minutes of the game. We sort of kicked back into life and created a few chances. On the run of play we should have probably scored there and a draw would have ended as a fair result, but you miss chances like that and you always run the risk of losing the game.”

This inability to hold onto a lead was their downfall when they crumbled under the weight of expectations of their home fans during qualifiers for the 2015 Gabon AFCON tournament. This during a campaign where they could not overcome lightweight and moderate sides like Mauritania and the Gambia.

Yet to their credit, their away form could not be questioned and the manner in which they dismantled the Super Eagles last week was the kind of performance that can only earn them respect throughout the continent and possible qualification to major tournaments.

Nigeria is a side they have never beaten in an official match in 13 attempts over a period of 25 years since 1992, but last week they upped the stakes, refused to be intimidated by the hostile crowd and held their nerve.

The victory was fashioned through the midfield domination of Dean Furman and Bongani Zungu who completely controlled proceedings as the duo allowed both Keagan Dolly and Themba Zwane to push forward and feed the forward line with ammunition.

It came as no surprise when Tokelo Rantie and Percy Tau snatched the two goals that broke the hearts of Nigerians. With a little more composure in front of goal, the score could have been more comprehensive as Dolly was denied a penalty and Zwane twice rattled their cage as his attempts crashed against the upright.

“We let ourselves down against Zambia,” admitted Manyama. “It is still early days but we have to correct certain aspects of our game going forward learn to build on our lead while defending better.”

It had been a solid start for Bafana Bafana under Baxter and while there is still a long way to go before the dream of qualification to Russia can be achieved. The new coach will be given some room to experiment as he embarks on his second term at the national helm. But he should be mindful that in the hearts of a football-mad nation, it’s only the win column that counts. 

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