Bafana Bafana’s African Nations Cup qualifier against Sierra Leone in Freetown this evening could be central to their campaign, and it appears increasingly likely they will have to face it without three first-choice central defenders.
Nasief Morris is out injured already, and replacement Bevan Fransman and captain Aaron Mokoena were hurt during South Africa’s 4-1 victory over Equatorial Guinea in Pretoria last weekend. Fransman’s concussion has ruled him out tonight.
Medical staff have worked round the clock to nurse Mokoena back to fitness, but his condition is not promising in the light of indications from the Bafana camp yesterday.
The squad arrived in Freetown on Thursday morning.
This could leave coach Joel Santana with a selection dilemma. The Brazilian will have to decide between breaking up the team that was successful against Equatorial Guinea.
He may move Kagisho Dikgacoi from midfield to defence or use an inexperienced combination at the back of Bongani Khumalo and either Robyn Johannes or Mokete Tsotetsi.
Both options are far from ideal against a team that reportedly has some dangerous runners and whose attacks need to be broken down in the midfield. The central defenders will need to put in an error-free performance.
This match could be the acid test for Bafana in Group 4. Putting four goals past Equatorial Guinea has raised the team’s hopes after their disappointing 2-0 defeat against Nigeria in Abuja. More important was the way the victory came, with Dikgacoi and MacBeth Sibaya providing a solid new platform in central midfield that allowed attackers Steven Pienaar, Teko Modise, Surprise Moriri and Terror Fanteni to roam freely.
This sort of result, though, is always easier to achieve at home on a good playing surface and against weaker opponents. Now a different sort of victory, one ground out with guts, patience and determination, must be achieved on a potentially rugged surface against opponents fired up by fanatical home support and convinced of Bafana’s fallibility on the international stage. Any sign of weakness will be pounced on.
Apart from proving they can play away, where Bafana have not won in more than a year, this evening’s result could prove pivotal in the Group 4 campaign.
On the face of it, Sierra Leone’s ranking of 163rd in the world points to an easy game. However, reports from the Leoneans’ 1-0 defeat against group powerhouse Nigeria —thanks to an 89th-minute goal by Joseph Yobo — are that the Super Eagles were given a torrid time.
This view of a game where the Leone Stars hit the post twice was confirmed by the SA Football Association’s “spy” in Freetown, under-23 coach Steve Komphela.
“I think we need to give them respect because they have the potential to cause havoc when they host us in their backyard,” Komphela told Business Day this week. “They could be tougher than the Equatorial Guinea team we saw here at the weekend. They definitely look a better side.”
Bafana would not have found anything too daunting in their game against Equatorial Guinea to worry them for the return leg in Malabo on October 10. In Sierra Leone they face an unknown quantity— and potentially the toughest away game of the group besides the one against Nigeria — in a venue Fifa only passed as safe at the last minute before the qualifiers began.
If Bafana can come through unscathed this evening, preferably with another morale-boosting victory, then their life in Group 4 is going to be that much easier. With Nigeria almost certain of the three points in Equatorial Guinea today, Bafana could end up playing catch-up for the rest of the campaign if they lose.
For Sierra Leone, AEK Athens forward Mohamed Kallon returns from suspension. At 16 he was the youngest player at the Nations Cup finals in South Africa in 1996, and he has since played for Inter Milan and Monaco.
Beyond the uncertainty in defence, Santana seems unlikely to make too many changes to the form that beat Equatorial Guinea. His 4-4-1-1 formation is similar to the one his predecessor, Carlos Alberto Parreira, employed, but Parreira used one defensive midfielder when Santana prefers two. The overlapping full-backs (Tsepo Masilela and Bryce Moon) and narrowly deployed wide midfielders (Steven Pienaar and Teko Modise) were all in the Parreira mould.
Possible Bafana line-up: Khune – Moon, Khumalo, Tsotetsi, Masilela – Modise, Sibaya (capt), Dikgacoi, Pienaar – Moriri – Fanteni TV: Live on SABC1 from 5.30 pm (Kickoff 6 pm)