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Baxter faces midfield puzzle for Nigeria clash as injuries bite

South Africa have a mounting central midfield crisis ahead of their crucial Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria in Johannesburg next month.

Bafana Bafana can book their place at the finals in Cameroon with a victory, while a draw would also be enough in the unlikely event that Libya are held by the Seychelles in Victoria in the other match in Group E.

The sight of Kamohelo Mokotjo limping out of Brentford's English Championship clash with Norwich City after just 30 minutes on Saturday with what looked a serious calf injury will no doubt be giving Bafana coach cold sweats.

It comes hot on the heels of the news that Dean Furman, another key cog in the defensive midfield role, will be out for the remainder of the year, to go with the long-term injury to Bongani Zungu that will likely only see him return in February.

The industrious Mokotjo is hugely important to both club and country, and his ability to shield the back four and excellent passing range, against a tough opposition and on what will be a slick surface in Soweto, would be sorely missed.

"Mokotjo's importance to Brentford should not be understated," English website football.london said.

"He is possibly the only member of the Bees' squad who provides such defensive stability in midfield and [coach Thomas] Frank has paid tribute to his away performances this year, highlighting his display against Leeds United."

That grit, quality and experience would be hugely missed against Nigeria, and potentially leave Baxter scratching around for alternatives.

Sibusiso Vilakazi played a similar, deeper role in the home 0-0 draw with Libya in September, but he too is out and unlikely to play again this season.

It means the only options available to Baxter would be inexperienced ones, with the exception of Mamelodi Sundowns stalwart Hlompho Kekana, who is not shaping up to be the key figure in the centre of the park against Nigeria.

Kekana is known for his long-range strikes and tough tackling, but he is also a natural leader who captain Sundowns to the 2016 CAF Champions League title.

He is the man that Baxter will build his central midfield around, and he at least understands the game-plans having been a non-playing member of the squad that faced Seychelles in back-to-back matches earlier this month.

But who will play around him is a big debate. Favourite among the contenders would be Lebogang Phiri, who also featured as a substitute in the 6-0 win over Seychelles and has been in good form for Guingamp in France's Ligue 1 this season.  

But he remains an experienced campaigner at this level with only five caps, while Cape Town City midfielder Thabo Nodada, another strong contender, is uncapped.

Nodada received a first call-up against Seychelles and has continued that good form in recent matches for City, but it will be a big ask for him to come up against the quality and the experience of Nigeria.

Siphesihle Ndlovu, who was dropped for the Seychelles games after an indifferent start to the new season with Maritzburg United, could earn himself a recall, but he too only has five caps, all coming against modest opposition.   

Tiyani Mabunda from Sundowns could be a good option to partner Kekana as they are clubmates, but he has not featured all that much for the Brazilians this season and won the last of his five caps against Zambia in June 2017. 

Baxter has not had much luck with injuries of late - he lost in-form Montpellier winger Keagan Dolly for the Seychelles games and will not get him back until the New Year.

Red-hot striker Lebo Mothiba also missed the Libya game in September through injury, a match in which he could well have made a big difference.

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