|IT'S ALL IN THE HEAD: unbeaten Bafana boss Shakes Mashaba|
IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN. Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba can do no wrong. He refuses to lose. For long periods at the Orlando Stadium, it looked like his Bafana Bafana unbeaten record was under threat. Knives were being gleefully sharpened for a meaningles friendly.
But the critics were dumbfounded once more. In the end it was a fitting send off for Bafana Bafana. Nobody got carried away – literally or figuratively, though Thabo Matlaba did go off injured – and those bright green 2012 African Champions Zambia were beaten 1-0.
That’s EIGHT games guys. Three wins and three draws in AFCON qualifying, then wins over the Ivory Coast at the Nelson Mandela Challenge and Sunday’s triumph, which could have – should have – ended 2-0.
For long stages of the first half, we witnessed the pesky Chipololo in a dominant role in front of empty stands. Possession was squandered, strikers were isolated, hopeful long-balls were punted. Blimey, even the SABC lost their signal from the ground.
After half-time, the crowd grew and the arrival of Sbu Vilakazi, Bernard Parker and Thuso Phala roused South Africa out of their slumbers.
By the time Phala, the former Platinum Stars man now at SuperSport United, got his well-taken 81st-minute goal, Shakes Mashaba’s unbeaten squad were starting to find their feet after a couple of weeks of festive upheaval.
But Mashaba is the king of mastering upheaval. You can shoot his captain, send him off to West Africa with the youngsters, shower him in ebola, injure key players, fail to report for camp and refuse to answer calls, miss two flights from Schipol, claim fatigue when you haven't got a club – but Shakes remains unruffled.
As the Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula roused from his Sunday slumber for a quick “well done” on twitter, Mashaba insisted: “There is no such thing as a friendly between two nations. There is always pride.
“Tactically we were superior of course, but we just couldn't finish, we couldn't get the goals. The heat got to the boys. I have no problem wishing Zambia good luck at Afcon. They have not selected their squad yet, you could see they all wanted to be involved.
"I say well done to my team. We got the late goal, we got the three points. And we could have had more.”
Of course, the three points were imaginary on this occasion, as they will be in Gabon, where Bafana play (hopefully) Cameroon and Mali in friendlies before Afcon 2015 kicks off in Bata on January 18.
Oh, and the hosts are in all sorts of trouble. Though the draw favoured them – Group A is by far the easiest of the four – Equatorial Guinea and their imported stars have no coach, with Argentinian 50-year-old Estaban Becker set to take charge this week. He currently runs their WOMEN’s team. Honest.
So all in all, with Algeria suffering a couple of high profile injuries as they picked their 23-man squad, South Africa aren’t in bad shape. We can safely ignore the furore surrounding the axing of our only Champions League star, Thulani Serero. We can stop discussing the omission of those we foolishly imagined were key players.
As I have said before, all that matters now is the starting eleven for that opening clash with Algeria, currently Africa’s top ranked nation, winners of the African Champions League through ES Setif and 15th in the world with their collection of French-born, French-reared stars.
DEFENCE: NO CHANGE
The back five – Daren Keet in goal behind Rivaldo Coetzee and Tower Mathoho with Thabo Matlaba and Anele Ngcongca – looks okay. They tend to lose possession, go long... and Tyson Hlatshwayo of Bidvest Wits would be my choice ahead of young Coetzee.
But why change a defence after a clean sheet? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
MIDFIELD: ALL CHANGE
It’s in the midfield things MUST change. Prior to the substitutions against Zambia, Bafana were struggling for shape. Reneilwe Letsholonyane is banned for the opening game after his red card in the final qualifier against Nigeria.
But with Dean Furman joining the squad late after 88 minutes for Doncaster Rovers in the FA Cup against Bristol City on Saturday, there were always going to be changes.
Andile Jali, like Patrick Phungwayo, is carrying a knee injury, but Bafana’s medical team say he’ll be okay for January 19 at Mongomo. Obviously, Jali and Furman will hold the midfield against Algeria; I’d go with Vilakazi pushing forward in front of them and Thami Sangweni wide, though the Chippa United man failed to impress on Sunday.
ATTACK: ONE CHANGE
Up front, Bernard Parker will have to add width as well as fire power, Bongani Ndulula did not do enough to start for me. The big AmaZulu striker is impressive at times but simply disappears when the pressure is on, as it will be at Afcon.
Tokelo Rantie, who chose NOT to have surgery after his partial shoulder dislocation in November with Bournemouth, will be the spearhead. We must pray he doesn’t fall awkwardly for the next six weeks.
For impact, Thuso Phala looks a likely option though he missed a great chance to score a second against Zambia in the dying moments.
And there it is. A Bafana Bafana side without May Mahlangu, Kamehelo Mokotjo, Itumeleng Khune, Thulani Serero, Tefu Mashamaite, Kermit Erasmus, Lehlohonolo Majoro and Tshepo Masilela. Who would have thought it?
Shakes remains unbeaten. Shakes knows best. Even in the Group of Death, where Mashaba has set a target of five points, Bafana have a fighting chance. His parting words? "We won't be joining anybody in the next round of AFCON. It will be about who is joining us. We are going there to win it."