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Baxter on a hiding to nothing at Four Nations tournament

Stuart Baxter has much to lose and not all that much to gain in South Africa's two matches to be played in the Four Nations tournament in Ndola, Zambia this week, although it will allow him to have a look at which personalities can help him during the African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.

Bafana Bafana will take on Angola on Thursday, and then either Zambia or Zimbabwe in the final or third-place play-off of the hastily arranged tournament this weekend.

Baxter has already admitted that he's disappointed with the opposition given to him in this FIFA window, having preferred to compete in the Kings Cup in Thailand along with the hosts, Slovakia, UAE and Gabon, which he feels would have provided a better workout for his side than more matches against very familiar foes.

Should Bafana breeze through the tournament in Zambia, there will be little fanfare about it - from a supporter point of view victory is expected.

But should they lose, and Baxter will begin to feel the heat again after a difficult period in which the side has lost five of their last six games in various competitions.

Rarely in the 26-year history of the national team have they been on such a poor run, and Baxter has already failed in one of his first mandates, to qualify the side for the World Cup in Russia.

The court of public opinion is turning against him, and the South African Football Association have in the past taken such considerations into account when assessing the future of the national team coach.

It would, of course, be foolhardy to jettison Baxter before the completion of the African Nations Cup qualifiers at least, and there is no suggestion that his head is on the block, but he is also a coach in need of some wins.

His squad selection has a definite 'future' feel to it, with a number of new young players mixed in with some familiar old faces.

"We are choosing to prioritise development," Baxter told reporters this week. "To broaden and strengthen the squad. What I want out of this is that we get some positive signs, both from the players we think are leaders and the ones we think are contenders.

"If we get those positives signs, that will be more valuable to me than winning each game 1-0, scraping through and not preparing me for what's going to come up, which is the AFCON qualifiers."

The tournament comes at an odd time for Baxter, with the Nations Cup qualifiers to only continue in September.

A lot can change in form and fitness in the next six months for players. The regional COSAFA Cup, to be hosted in Limpopo from May 27-June 9 will be another stepping stone towards that and perhaps his squad for this Four Nations event has been selected with that in mind.

"I would love to be winning the games at this tournament now, but I really want to get a lot of good information that will equip us to go on and have a good qualification.

"It's a balancing act because the country wants me to win the games, but does the country want the same old same old?" he asked. "I think what we are going to do is a calculated risk. I am hoping we will win and learn."

Baxter has also been hamstrung to a certain extent by the fact that his players only assembled on Sunday, with the just a few days of training for what is a much-changed squad, providing little opportunity to gel and work on combinations.

The coach has already been dealt one blow, he had hoped to bring Orlando Pirates assistant Rhulani Mokwena, seen as one of the country's brightest young tacticians, into the camp.

This was announced earlier in the week, but Pirates later vetoed the move, with the club at a critical juncture of their season.

"I just want to clear the situation regarding Rhulani, the coach we wanted to invite to the camp," Baxter said. "As everybody knows, this tournament has compromised in terms of time and preparations.

"The warning-time for us to know that we are taking part was very short, and that has made the lines of communications also a little bit short, protocol wasn't followed 100 percent.

"At this moment Rhulani won't be taking part in our camp, we understand the situation with Pirates. We just wanted to let everybody know the intention was to bring the coach into the camp and give him experience, and that was a very positive gesture."

South Africa have a strong record against their first opponents Angola, having managed eight wins, four draws and just a single defeat in their 13 past meetings with Palancas Negras.


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