Gabon has been plunged into a state of mourning. No, no one has died, but it may as well have been so. Talismanic striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has refused to honour a national call-up for the 2018 home World Cup qualifier against Côte d’Ivoire on Tuesday.
With two points from two matches, the Gabonese were looking for the goal-poaching Aubameyang to unlock the tight defence of log leaders Côte d’Ivoire and keep alive their dreams of qualifying for the World Cup finals in Russia in June. Instead they now seem resigned to a likely beating and elimination from the qualification programme.
And, although the Nigerians are optimistic that they can pick themselves up from the shocking defeat at the hands of South Africa in the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier last May, others are anxiously biting their nails fearing that defeat in their back-to-back encounter against Cameroon could prove disastrous.
Not so for South Africa, who return to familiar territory on a chartered flight to Praia, Cape Verde, accompanied by Sports Minister Thulas Nxesi and South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan for a showdown against a side hit by injuries and the withdrawal of several key players.
Only 12 players reported for training on Tuesday, leaving the Islanders scrambling to assemble a decent squad, particularly following the withdrawal of defender Ricardo Silva and Fernando Varela, both reportedly injured. The teenage striker Jovane Cabral has withdrawn for undisclosed reasons.
Key midfielder Babanco has tried to rally the Blue Sharks. He has promised home fans that the time has come to get back to winning ways following successive defeats at the hands of Burkina Faso and Senegal, but his call to arms sounded hollow as they acknowledged that they face a daunting task against the table-topping Bafana.
Bafana coach Stuart Baxter grabbed maximum points at the same venue in qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup when he guided Bafana to a comfortable 2-1 victory and has been quietly confident that his charges can come back unscathed from their Praia mission.
Baxter’s temperament was tested mid-week — he was left seething over Vitesse Arnhem’s decision to withdraw Thulani Serero, claiming the player had stretched a hamstring. Baxter has requested that they furnish him with medical proof — or that the player be in Praia for the first of two ties taking place over five days.
Nigeria are still in awe of Bafana and are still wondering how the previously timid South Africans caged the Super Eagles, plucked their feathers and handed them a 2-0 beating, after also taming the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in Yaoundé, even though their tie ended in a 2-2 stalemate.
“Let us put behind us the results we attained in Nigeria a couple of months ago,” said Baxter, after taking his troops through a light training session on the AstroTurf in Praia, where the likes of Keagan Dolly, Bongani Zungu and Tokelo Rantie looked eager to get the ball rolling.
“We need to respect our hosts and, agreed, we have come here for nothing less than victory. But we must not lose focus and dismiss them as cannon fodder because they lost their opening two matches. I am also not going to read much into reports that their squad has been ravaged by injuries. I expect a tough fight.”
The presence of Nxesi in Praia indicates just how important the clash against the Blue Sharks is. Victory in Praia and in Durban will almost guarantee Bafana a spot in Russia.