After failure in the qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup drew the ire of the nation, and the team’s ousting from the main COSAFA Cup competition on home soil some derision, Saturday’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Libya presents South Africa coach Stuart Baxter with the chance to win back a growing band of doubters.
Reaching the 2019 AFCON in Cameroon next June is a non-negotiable for Bafana Bafana and while failure to win in Durban would not spell the end of their campaign by any stretch, it would potentially take destiny out of their own hands, even at this early stage of the campaign.
With victory over Nigeria in Uyo in the bag, it has been a dream start for Bafana in their bid to reach the continental finals, but that was some 15 months ago now and prior to their World Cup disaster.
It was not so much the failure to reach Russia that was galling for fans, they were in the same qualification group as powerful Senegal after all, but the twin defeats to Cape Verde sapped much of the confidence out of fans and left Baxter arguably fighting for his job.
He has not been helped by the withdrawal through injury of important names such as Bongani Zungu, Lebo Mothiba and Themba Zwane, all of who might have started against the Libyans.
But there should still be enough in the squad for a home win against an organized, if limited, Libyan team, who have proven a tough nut to crack in the past 18 months.
Baxter says he knows the players well in the opposition, but is unsure how they will play under new coach Adel Amrouche, with the Algerian-born tactician leading the team for the first time.
“I know a lot about them. I’ve studied three of their games. The only thing that probably is a question mark is that they have a new coach‚” Baxter told reporters this week.
“We can’t be certain that he’s going to be like the old coach. We can’t be certain that his selection will be the same. But I think I’ve got a good idea how they are going to approach the game.”
Baxter knows that despite the fact that Libya have not played a full international since their African Nations Championship at the start of the year, they have a special relationship given that the league in the country has been disjointed and played in fits and starts due to the security issues in the North African nation.
That has given them more opportunity for national team camps and to work together, almost as a club side. “I think that the Libyans‚ because of their situation are together probably more than most national teams. I’ll guess that they’re going to be better organised than most national teams.
“Do they have the extreme talent of Sadio Mane and people like that? I don’t think so‚ but they are good players.
“And the games that I’ve seen they’ve given every team a tough time‚ including Morocco. So it will be a tough game. But we’ve done our homework.”
Amrouche has been lavish in his praise of Bafana, suggesting their players are the best on the continent, bar in front of goals, and he says they will be an open book for him to plan against.
“I know South Africa very well, Bafana Bafana,” he told KweséESPN earlier this week.
“Each coach who has been in charge of South Africa has come with his own philosophy. When the Brazilian was there (Carlos Alberto Parreira) there was one kind of football, when (Pitso) Mosimane was there then they played another style and now with (Stuart) Baxter, it is different again.
“But the quality of the players remains the same. With South African players, who are always getting creative football and I think for me, in terms of African football, they have the best quality of individual players.”
Libya have won only five of their last 19 internationals since the start of 2017, but only lost five as well.
Draws are their game, especially away from home, and Saturday’s result could rest on whether Bafana can pick their pocket and unlock that stubborn defence.