Afcon: Cool, we’ve qualified, but now the real sweat begins
What are the most pressing issues for Bafana ahead of their return to the continental stage in June?
Bafana Bafana have qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, but in many ways the hard work starts now as they prepare to face off against the elite teams on the continent. Coach Stuart Baxter has under three months to iron out his plans for the competition and must wait until the draw on April 12 to know his opponents. So what are the most pressing issues for the side ahead of their return to the continental stage?
Get the preparations right
The Cosafa Cup is an ideal opportunity for Baxter to get his full squad together and have tournament simulation just a fortnight before the Nations Cup finals get underway.
It would be a waste to see Safa treat the tournament as an experimental forum for fringe players, especially as fellow Cup of Nations qualifiers Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Madagascar will take part. Bafana should play the Cosafa Cup in the first week of their two-week buildup and then have at least one friendly with a high-profile African nation – depending on the draw on April 12 but preferably a top team from north Africa – en route to Egypt.
Baxter could try to get his players together earlier than June 7 but sometimes too much time together can backfire. It is still a long haul to the final in Cairo on July 19.
Sort out penetration down the flanks
Choosing Innocent Maela as a quasi wing-back for the game in Sfax was a gamble that did not come off. He gave away possession all too frequently and did not prove effective going forward down the flanks.
On the right-hand side, Thami Mkhize made more forays but this is a part of the Bafana game that needs more attention. The Premier Soccer League is filled with teams who use wings to good effect but with Bafana, coach Baxter prefers transitions that come from the heart of midfield.
Players such as Thapelo Morena, Lyle Lakay, Amigo Memela, Thembinkosi Lorch and Vincent Pule can also be effective of Baxter considers a change in his game plan.
Work out what to do with Thulani Serero
Serero is unquestionably a talented footballer and the only player in the current Bafana Bafana squad with Uefa Champions League experience after years spent in the Netherlands with top side Ajax Amsterdam. But the question is, where does he fit into this Bafana side and will he be happy being a “squad player” as is likely to be the case?
Serero is used as a deep-lying midfielder at Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem, but admits his more favoured position is as a playmaker behind the strikers. But Baxter’s Bafana don’t line up like that, generally playing 4-3-3, meaning Serero would have to be pushed into a wider role if he plays further forward. And if he plays in the midfield, then he competes with Kamohelo Mokotjo, Dean Furman, Bongani Zungu (when fit), Hlompho Kekana and Tiyani Mabunda, and does not have the physique to be a midfield enforcer. There must be no over-reliance on Percy Tau
Tau is the man of the moment for Bafana and rightly so, having been magnificent for the national side over the past 18 months. Seven goals in his last 10 caps is an excellent return, but also a sign of just how crucial he is to the national team setup.
While Baxter will be delighted with the consistency of Tau’s performances, he will also know that relying too heavily on a single player is a dangerous game. An injury to Tau would be a serious blow to the side, while come the finals in Egypt, he is likely to be a marked man – both in terms of being closely watched by opposition defenders and potentially being kicked out of contest by physical opponents.
The rise of Lebo Mothiba in the last year has been a welcome surprise, but they are different players and Tau contributes more in terms of goals and lineup play. Finding an understudy if he is not there is crucial.
Settle on first pick at right-back The right-back position has been a troublesome one for some years now, with a succession of coaches failing to settle on an automatic choice. Anele Ngconcga occupied the role for some time, while Ramahlwe Mphahlele, Diamond Thopola and Thami Mkhize have been used more recently.
Thulani Hlatshwayo even had a brief spell there, reprising a role from earlier in his club career. Mkhize looks to be the current incumbent, and while he is a strong weapon going forward, is not the best defensively and against stronger opposition at the Cup of Nations, could be found out. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons that Baxter opted for a back three against Libya with Mkhize and Maela asked to play as wing-backs.