Five talking points for Bafana Bafana ahead of Nigeria clash
South Africa host Nigeria in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at the FNB Stadium on November 17, a match in which both sides will have the opportunity to book their place in the finals in Cameroon next year.
Bafana Bafana come up against arguably their biggest rival on the African continent, with no love lost between the nations and all to play for.
KweséESPN looks at five talking points for South Africa ahead of the crunch clash.
Who will play in midfield?
Injuries to Dean Furman, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Bongani Zungu, Sibusiso Vilakazi and Keagan Dolly has decimated the Bafana midfield and left much speculation over who will be fielded.
Baxter is likely to go again with a 4-3-3 formation, and that will surely be anchored in the midfield by Hlompho Kekana, given his grit and experience.
Thulani Serero, back in the fold after a year out following a SAFA ban when he refused a call-up against Senegal in the World Cup qualifiers, would also be a strong contender following his form for Dutch side Vitesse.
That leaves Fortune Makaringe, Teboho Mokoena and Tiyani Mabunda as the three to fill the final midfield slot and you would think CAF Champions League winner Mabunda would be the favourite.
Counting against him is the lack of game-time this season, with just two league starts, though he has featured more prominently in recent weeks for Mamelodi Sundowns.
Mokoena is undoubtedly talented but inexperienced at this level, while Makaringe has not hit the same form as last season with Maritzburg United and looks to be in the squad as cover.
Baxter’s second tenure with Bafana has been a roller-coaster to say the least – the highs of a first ever away win in Nigeria and a record 6-0 thumping of Seychelles mixed in with some dismal lows, most notably in the World Cup qualifiers.
What he hasn’t managed to do is put together a good run of wins, though it should be said that the players must also shoulder a large part of the blame for that with some embarrassingly poor performances that would scupper the best laid plans of any coach.
What is for certain is that Baxter must get Bafana to the expanded Nations Cup finals in Cameroon next year – failure to do that and his stay becomes untenable.
He could do that as early as this clash with Nigeria, where a victory would see South Africa assured of their place, some five months before their final qualifier against Libya in March.
That would be a massive boost to Baxter and his plans, and perhaps quieten the whispers for now that he could be set for the axe.
Play for a draw or go for a win?
Victory would guarantee Bafana a place in Cameroon, but a draw might also if Libya failed to beat Seychelles on a treacherous surface in Victoria.
That game will kick-off 30 minutes before the clash with Nigeria, so Bafana will have an inkling of what they need to do, but not the full picture.
Unless they beat Nigeria, Bafana will in all likelihood go to North Africa for their final qualifier in March needing to avoid defeat to Libya, which will be a tense, pressure-filled encounter.
But also pushing on and going for a win against a very accomplished Nigerian side could back-fire badly, whereas a draw, whatever the result elsewhere, would be seen as a satisfactory result and keep the wolves from Baxter’s door for now.
It is a fine balancing act, but don’t expect Bafana to be too adventurous in their search for a win.
Bafana’s unbeaten run against Nigeria
Bafana’s recent record against Nigeria has been strong, with an away win and three draws in their last four match-ups.
There was a time that Nigeria were a feared opponent for South Africa, but those days are gone and while there is still a healthy dollop of respect, Bafana know they have the beating of the Super Eagles.
Indeed, one of those games was a 2-2 draw in Uyo when Bafana conceded in injury-time goal through a goalkeeper howler in a game in which they were comfortably the better side.
In fact, Nigeria have not beaten Bafana in a full competitive international (not counting the African Nations Championships where restricted squads are used) since a World Cup qualifier in 2008.
So the pendulum has just about swung in South Africa’s favour, but the question now is whether they can ram home that advantage again.
Playing at altitude
There is no doubt that Nigeria do not like playing at altitude, they have never beaten Bafana in Johannesburg and their only ever victory in the city was the final of the 2013 Nations Cup when they beat an exhausted Burkina Faso.
The decision to take the game to altitude has been welcomed by most, with all three of Nigeria’s previous wins in South Africa at coastal venues – Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.
Most of Nigeria’s players are at European clubs in highly professional leagues, and so will be ultra-fit, but until you have played at almost 6,000 feet above sea level, it is hard to fathom the effects on the body.
It is something that the players will have to counter and could give Bafana that small advantage they need to get a positive result, especially if they can stretch the Super Eagles across the pitch.
Expect plenty of stoppages in the second half as the Nigerian players hit the deck, seeking to slow the game and get their breath back.