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Next

Baxter under the microscope as Bafana seek Nations Cup tonic

Defeat against Nigeria on Saturday will by no means be the end of South Africa's Africa Cup of Nations final dreams, with the team still arguably favourites to qualify ahead of Libya, but the clash at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg has the feel of a pivotal moment for the country's football.

In fact, Bafana Bafana could still be handed a berth to Cameroon next June-July with a loss if Libya fall to a shock defeat in the Seychelles, but in many ways this game against the Super Eagles is not even about Cup of Nations qualification.

The fixture provides coach Stuart Baxter with a desperately needed chance to validate his work with the national team, to show that progress is being made, and that he is the right man to take the side forward.

The knives were out for the Bafana boss following the 0-0 draw in the Seychelles last month, but there were mitigating circumstances to that scoreless match, not least a horrendous pitch and a mindboggling inability of quality players to put the ball in the back of the net.

This match against Nigeria, and Tuesday's friendly with Paraguay, come ahead of a four-month break for the national team, and that might just give the South African Football Association the feeling they can act on Baxter if there is another poor performance.

Baxter, in his defence, can point to a crippling injury list and a buoyant Nigeria side as excuses, if Bafana fail, but he, too, will know the time for words of comfort has gone and he will be judged only on results.

"We can have our opinions about how things in the bigger perspective are going, but we are trying to develop a new team and at the same time win games - that's not the easiest thing to do," Baxter said at a press conference on Friday.

"I don't think we should lose track of the fact that we all want the same thing; we are all taking part." 

The coach is hoping that a combination of the altitude and what is forecast to be an oppressive temperature of 35 Celsius for the afternoon kick-off takes its toll on the visitors, though he accepts the lung-busting altitude is more likely than the temperature to benefit his side.

"I don't think the heat's going to be that much of an advantage for us; I think that's the same for both‚" Baxter said.

"I think Nigeria are probably used to it. Maybe their players who play in Europe are not as used to it as we are.

"I don't know if we're going to water the pitch‚ because they water the pitch in Europe‚ and their players are maybe more comfortable on that than our boys. But we'll see.

"They certainly think that the altitude is an issue‚ because they're coming in on Friday.

"But my experience with altitude is that if you don't come in on the day of the game, you've got to come in 12 days early. That's the scientific consensus. I think a day or two days is just enough time for them to get heavy-legged. That's nice.

"I was hoping that would be an advantage‚ and then the crowd would be an advantage‚ and then us being a bit better than they expect us to be.

"That's what we've got to work on. After 15 minutes they've got to think 'They're a bit better‚ a bit quicker‚ a bit sharper than we actually thought they would be'.

"And if we can get the game there‚ then we've got a bit of parity."

South Africa's line-up is difficult to predict given their number of injuries, but Itumeleng Khune will certainly earn a 91st cap in goal.

Left-back Sifiso Hlanti, and central defenders Thulani Hlatshwayo and Buhle Mkhwanazi, all from Bidvest Wits, will start, though there has been some question marks this week over the right-back position.

Ramahlwe Mphahlele of Kaizer Chiefs has held that position of late, but has a tendency to get caught out of position and Bafana will be wary of the pace of Ahmed Musa on the Nigeria left-wing.

That has led to the suggestion that Cape Town City captain Thami Mkhize could start.

The central midfield will likely contain the Mamelodi Sundowns duo of Hlompho Kekana and Tiyani Mabunda, two old war horses, as well as the returning Thulani Serero.

Serero has traditionally been used in a more advanced role for the national team, but he plays deeper for club side Vitesse in the Netherlands.

That would leave a front three of Percy Tau, Lebo Mothiba and Vincent Pule, all players in form and deserving of their places, though Themba Zwane also provides a very strong option.

Bafana are unbeaten in their past four matches against Nigeria, and they have never lost to the Super Eagles in Johannesburg.

Victory will seal their place at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon next year, and no doubt buy Baxter desperately needed breathing room.

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