Bafana face Libya with Afcon failure a sword over their heads
Ahead of this weekend's final round of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, 14 teams had already qualified to join hosts Egypt at the continental showpiece, and South Africa really should have been among them.
Their shocking failure to beat the Seychelles in Victoria in October has left Bafana Bafana with it all to do when they face Libya in Tunisia on Sunday.
At least Bafana are still in the driving seat; they enter matchday six on nine points to Libya's seven, and will progress if they avoid defeat against the Mediterranean Knights.
However, the failures of the current qualifying program -- and of campaigns gone by -- remain a spectre that Stuart Baxter's side must exorcise in Sfax to join Nigeria as Group E's Afcon qualifiers.
Certainly, if they fail to progress, that 0-0 draw against the Seychelles five months ago will come back to haunt the southern African heavyweights.
Putting that result into context; Bafana had smashed the same side 6-0 in Johannesburg only three days prior, before failing to net against them at the Stade Linite.
In Seychelles' next qualifier -- and their next home game -- they were devastated 8-1 by a Libya side that ran riot, making a mockery of Bafana's toil and their complaints about the playing surface.
The islanders are currently ranked No. 189 in the world, and at No. 49 in Africa they're the lowest-ranked team to have reached the group stage of the qualifiers (only Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea are lower).
No team has conceded more than Seychelles' 22 goals, and yet Bafana, with a forward line containing Ligue 1's Lebo Mothiba and Dino Ndlovu, who's found the net in the UEFA Champions League, couldn't breach a team of part-timers.
Had they taken those two critical points in the archipelago, or had they managed to beat a Libyan side that held them 0-0 in Durban in September, Bafana would already be home and dry.
It's a result that casts a shadow over Bafana's campaign, and now leaves them facing this unenviable make-or-break clash in North Africa.
Certainly, the profligacy they demonstrated against the Seychelles and Libya in the past surely needs to be resigned to history.
Mothiba's pace can definitely trouble a Libyan side that will doubtless push forward in search of the goals required, although his form in France for Strasbourg -- one goal in his past seven games -- doesn't inspire confidence.
Percy Tau's movement and dynamism, particularly in wide areas, can also help Bafana trouble their opponents on the counter, although the absence of Keagan Dolly, ruled out due to a hamstring problem, denies Baxter one of his key attacking weapons.
Netherlands-based Lars Veldwijk has returned to the squad, where his towering presence could present problems for the hosts and help South Africa avoid the kind of impotent attacking showing they endured against the Seychelles.
There are other reasons for optimism.
"Everyone is highly motivated in the camp and we know that we have a good chance of winning this encounter," skipper Thulani Hlatshwayo told the South African Football Association's official website.
"We've conceded only one goal in five matches and haven't lost a game in the qualifiers, which is an indication that we are doing something right, we just need to finish off what we started.
"We have to maintain our good form in defence, score the needed goals so they don't even get a chance of coming back into the qualifiers, and, most importantly, stay focused the entire 90 minutes plus.
"Qualification is in our hands, they need to win to overtake us, we have come too far to let it slip."
Hlatshwayo, one of a handful of experienced players in Baxter's largely rookie collective, will certainly be key to Bafana's chances as they look to navigate this tricky away tie.
However, he, like Bidvest Wits teammates Sifiso Hlanti and Buhle Mkhwanazi, heads into this fixture amid concerns about domestic form, as the Clever Boys' PSL title ambitions continue to unravel in spectacular fashion.
Tenacious midfielder and former skipper Dean Furman will also be key, and he's urged his teammates to remember all they've achieved to date.
"We have to remember that we are undefeated in this group, and if it stays that way we will qualify," he told journalists, as per the Citizen. "We've got to take that as a huge positive.
"We took on one of the big teams in Africa [Nigeria], we beat them away and we put up a good performance at home, so we can go into the last game with some confidence."
Baxter, who has increasingly come in for criticism following the draw against the Seychelles, must earn his keep too, and he'll be keen to make amends for the national side's failed qualification - under his watch - for the 2006 World Cup.
He paid for that failure with his job, and SAFA's patience will surely be tested if he falls short again.
The 65-year-old has significant selection decisions to make, notably in goal, where No. 1 Itumeleng Khune is injured, denying Bafana both experience and the services of one of the continent's finest stoppers.
Darren Keet and Ronwen Williams each have their individual qualities, although the former would perhaps represent a 'safer' choice for such a big occasion considering his experience and quality with aerial balls.
Similarly, Baxter's broader approach to the game will surely be decisive; too adventurous an approach, and Bafana might be left chasing qualification, too conservative, and they risk inviting pressure.
"I think we can go there and defend‚ but I don't think we can go there and park the bus and think we're going to stay in our own defending zone for 90 minutes‚" Baxter told journalists as per the Times.
"I don't think that's the sort of mentality we have; I don't think it's the sort of team we have," he added. "The gameplan has to be quite aggressive.
"I think it has to be with a great attention to our defending‚ without having that impact negatively on our desire to get at them and at their throat every time we can.
"We've got to have a gameplan for no matter what they do, and I think we can."
Finally, the coach will have to demonstrate his ability to manage the contest in-game, both with his touchline advice and his substitutions.
This hasn't always been a strength. Witness how, with Bafana desperate to find the net against the Seychelles, they resorted to long, hopeful balls upfield - wholly unsuited to the players on the pitch - when a more measured approach ought to have been sought.
It's set to be a cagey, nervy, tense finale to the qualifying campaign, and one that'll be decided on the finest margins.
Bafana and Baxter have faced pressure, and failed to manage it, in the past, and the coach and his more experienced heads must demonstrate that they can hold their nerve to get South Africa over the line.
If they fail, then that humiliating stalemate against the Seychelles will continue to hang like the sword of Damocles over the head of Baxter and this generation of South African talent.