CAPE TOWN, March 19 – National team coach Stuart Baxter says the Bafana Bafana players looked ‘sharp’ during training on Monday, although there is an injury concern for winger Keagan Dolly.
After jetting out of South Africa on Saturday night, Bafana held their first training session on Monday, at the Stade El Menzah in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, where they will spend the next three days.
The crunch 2019 CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) Group E qualifier against Libya in the Tunisian city of Sfax on Sunday is a match in which Bafana must avoid defeat in order to qualify for the AFCON finals, which take place in June in Egypt.
There had been question marks with regards to a lack of preparation – this was the first time the national team squad had assembled since they played Nigeria in an AFCON qualifier in Johannesburg last November.
For Baxter and his technical team, it will be a case of ‘boxing clever’ and making every minute count in the five or so days they do have to prepare for the showdown with the ‘Mediterranean Knights’.
“We had a good session,” he said of Monday’s run-out. “We worked on some tactics during our 90-minute session, and I am impressed with how the players have responded. They are all looking very sharp and ready to compete for a place in the first eleven.
“We have a great squad here and I believe that if we can work as a unit, have tactical discipline and enjoy the match against Libya, we will come away with the much need result,” Baxter added.
There will however always be unplanned issues to deal with, and the first of those arrived when Keagan Dolly went down with a hamstring problem.
The Bafana medics have claimed it’s “nothing serious”. But it has to be taken into account that the former Mamelodi Sundowns player has only recently recovered from a broken leg, sustained while playing for Montpellier, and he took part in a reserve team game for the French club last weekend to try and prove his fitness.
There has also been a worry over the condition of central defender Rivaldo Coetzee, who missed Sundowns’ CAF Champions League match against Wydad Casablanca last weekend due to the long-standing foot injury.
Coetzee is only starting – he’s played just eight matches this season – to make his comeback from the injury which kept him out for the whole of the previous season and threatened to end his career prematurely.
As such, his selection seemed a rather strange one. It will in any case surely be Thulani Hlatshwayo, Buhle Mkwanazi and Daniel Cardoso who will be competing for the two central defensive berths on Sunday.
Dolly and Coetzee’s issues aside, Baxter does have a full-strength squad to work with and has very good options in all areas of the park.
Bafana’s home game against Libya took place in Durban last September and ended in a 0-0 draw.
South Africa will now be hoping to benefit from the away fixture being played on neutral territory in Tunisia, due to a FIFA ban against football being played in Libya due to the civil unrest in that country.
The southern coastal city of Sfax is however not too far (350km) from the Libyan border, and is approximately 500km away from Libya’s capital city, Tripoli.
So while the forced venue change could work slightly in Bafana’s favour, there’ll still likely be a partisan crowd in favour of the north African team.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria are currently topping Group E and are assured of their place at the finals in Egypt no matter their result against Seychelles on Friday afternoon.
Sunday’s match in Sfax is set for a 19h00 kick off, South African time. (ANA)