Thursday, 27 May 2010

South Africa have host of a chance but for Michael Essien, it's the end of the world

South Africa finally wheeled out the big guns against Colombia last night as Soccer City echoed to the sounds of the Vuvuzela and another World Cup friendly success.

This one was not pretty, but hey, for a side ranked 83 in the world before the tournament kicks off here on June 11, who's nit-picking? Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said his players were "a little nervous at the end" but continues to defy expectations of chronic home failure on the pitch.

The American journalists out here called these pre-World Cup friendlies "exhibitions"... this was never that! Three successful penalties resulted in a 2-1 win over the side ranked 35 in the latest rankings. South Africa's opening Group A clash with Mexico may be a little tougher, but there are tentative signs Bafana Bafana could avoid being the first host nation not to reach the knock-out stages.

With Premier League stars Aaron Mokoena (Portsmouth), Steven Pienaar (Everton) and even the controversial Benni McCarthy (West Ham) all playing a part, Brazilian boss Carlos Alberto Parreira is now unbeaten in NINE since he returned to the hot-seat last November.

To be honest, they were probably better at the Super Stadium in the nearby Soweto suburb of Orlando last week when they only managed a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria. But a sell-out 75,000 crowd with their blaring plastic football horns weren't going to be denied.

What was it former England captain Bryan Robson said last week after his Thailand side were beaten 4-0 in Nelspruit? "An atmosphere like that could work in South Africa's favour. The Vuvuzela could be their 12th man!".

Two local lads out of the unimpressive South African Premier League, midfielder Teko Modise and striker Katlego Mphela, scored the South Africa penalties either side of Giovanni Moreno's spot kick.

Parreira even gave McCarthy, under fire for a lack of fitness (and an abundance of fatness according to sources inside the camp), a run, but he was unable to add to his record 32 goals for the Rainbow Nation.

Colombia, who have failed to qualify for the last three finals, will feel aggrieved by the Kenyan ref Samwel Kipngetich’s decision to retake the first Modise penalty, which was saved by the "Coffee Makers" No 1 David Ospina. The France-based goalkeeper was adjudged to have moved early and Modise was able to make it second time lucky.

South African goalkeeper Itumaleng Khune, the Kaizer Chiefs stopped who appeared to hurt himself early on when he clashed with Jackson Martinez, fouled Adrian Ramos to give away the equaliser, tucked away by Moreno. Worryingly, Khune was substituted at the break.

Pienaar, South Africa's great hope and probably their only truly world-class player, came on at half-time before Valencia fouled the dreadlocked Siphiwe Tshabalala and Katlego Mphela sent Ospina the wrong way with 58 minutes on the clock.

South Africa have two friendlies to go before the opener against Mexico. Guatemala, ranked in three figures, are first at the new World Cup stadium in Polokwane on May 31 with fellow qualifiers Denmark - who beat Senegal 2-0 last night - their final warm-up at Atteridgeville's Super Stadium near Pretoria on June 5.

In other “exhibitions” Uruguay, who are also in Group A with South Africa, France and Mexico, produced an encouraging 4-1 win over Israel, Honduras, who are drawn in Group D with Chile, Spain and Switzerland, could only draw 2-2 in Belarus. Their group rivals Chile crushed Zambia 3-0.

But for true football fans, last night's friendly efforts around the globe were overshadowed by the news that Ghana's Michael Essien has been ruled out of the tournament. Chelsea midfielder Essien, one of Africa's greatest footballing exports over the past decade, has been struggling with a hamstring followed by a knee injury.

His last competitive match was for his country during the African Cup of Nations in Angola but he hadn't played for club or country since. Tonight the Ghanaian FA announced he wouldn’t be fit until July. That leaves Ghana – in the Group of Death with Germany, Australia and Serbia – struggling.

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