Durban – Win the big moments and South Africa can go on to win Saturday’s Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final against Mali at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
It could be a tackle, an interception or cool control at a critical juncture that turns the game.
“If you win the big moments then it makes a difference in a knockout match,” said former Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey.
“There are not any major glaring weaknesses between the sides. That’s when the big moments make a difference, such as a great tackle or controlling the ball and finishing.”
South Africa have already delivered several such moments. Defender Siyabonga Sangweni’s strikes against Angola and Morocco fall into that category, along with two crucial saves by goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune which prevented Morocco from extending their lead in the last group game.
In Saturday’s game (kick-off 8.30pm) more of the same will be expected to keep the Malians at bay, especially their influential midfielder Seydou Keita.
Tovey, the 1996 winning captain, pinpointed Keita as the one player that Bafana Bafana would need to shadow closely.
The 33-year-old left Spanish giants Barcelona to play in China this season, but is no less influential for the Eagles.
Since 2002 they have qualified for every Afcon tournament, and in the previous tournament they achieved their best finish of third place.
This tournament could be Keita’s last chance at glory, so it is likely be a torrid evening for the likes of Dean Furman and Reneilwe Letsholonyane to mark him out of the contest.
Tovey said: “All their players are really dangerous but we have to look out for Seydou Keita. When he gets the ball their players are immediately looking for a pass. We have to make sure we take care of Keita, but we can’t go lunging in because players like him can ride tackles.”
Equally important will be for Bafana Bafana to stick to their game plan, play to their strengths, and tighten their defending.
“We have to play quick interpassing to get behind them, keep the ball on the ground and keep turning their defenders,” added Tovey. “At set pieces we haven’t defended well in the past. That’s a big worry because we don’t seem to attack the ball. We have to attack the ball and support each other to pick up man-to-man and zonal marking.”
Defensively there will be one forced change, with Siboniso Gaxa expected to slot in at right back for the suspended Anele Ngcongca.
It will be the first appearance of the tournament for Gaxa. Like fellow defender Sangweni he is from Durban and should relish the opportunity of playing in front of friends and family.
At the opposite end of the park, coach Gordon Igesund’s armoury is fully stocked after Lehlohonolo Majoro recovered from a gash on his leg. Majoro missed the previous game and is likely to start on the bench behind Katlego Mphela and Tokelo Rantie.
Not too many changes were necessary, cautioned Tovey. “Mphela is getting better and better, and he’s experienced. Then there’s the rawness of Rantie. He’s starting to get more composure in every game and he’s going to cause problems with his pace.”
The key factor for South Africa is home support.
With a sell-out crowd and renewed confidence after they topped their group, home-ground advantage more than makes up for Bafana Bafana’s smaller physiques, weaker ranking – 22nd as opposed to Mali’s third in Africa – and past failures at the continental football jamboree.
The pressure of expectation has given way to a wave of confidence that this team believes they can ride all the way to the final.
No more do they feel overshadowed by the greatness of the all-conquering 1996 squad. Although still three games away from achieving the same feat on home soil, this group has shown resilience and developed self-belief to more easily shoulder the weight of the nation’s hopes. – Independent on Saturday