JOHANNESBURG - Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter may have bemoaned having just four training sessions - squeezed in carefully to avoid overloading his players - prior to departure to Nigeria on Tuesday afternoon to face the Super Eagles in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier on Saturday, but the Scotsman believes he used them to good effect.
With Nigeria adopting a new DNA under Gernot Rohr, the 63-year-old German coach who took over in August last year, Baxter got his players to work in confined spaces to counter the opposition’s high-pressing game and also drilled it into his men to stay focused in critical phases of the match as Bafana have been known to concede late goals, like they did in Ouagadougou which allowed Burkina Faso to earn a precious point in their opening 2018 World Cup qualifier in October last year.
“I think they (Nigeria) are a playing team,” said Baxter. “They’ve got a lot of players who want the ball at their feet, and they attack the spaces because they have got the speed. If they build up, they will attack the spaces in between and behind our players in the last third.
"Maybe they don’t have the extreme physical capabilities of the earlier Nigerian teams, but I think they are still quite physical in their approach to the game - they want to press the ball immediately after losing it and they want to get in your face. I am sure they would want to drive the tempo of the game. I am hoping there is a bit of physicality because then our own mobility and speed will come to the fore.”
The coach nodded in agreement to a question about another critical phase that needs a lot of attention: Bafana can’t seem to protect a lead.
“I think when we have conceded late it was a little bit of anxiety. We have spoken a lot about this,” Baxter explained. “It is looking at the clock, and you stop playing to a certain degree. You start hoping and stop believing.
"I think we’ve just got to be braver and ask how do we manage the game. There are certain things you can do, but what you try to avoid is just being there on the pitch and not have a plan. I think if we keep playing for the 90 minutes and there are five or six minutes more, we have to keep on playing.
"We have dealt with a situation where we are leading in training and I sent one player off and asked the players to protect the lead and I thought they did it very well. So, we have approached that. And if we have to park the bus, we will. But a lot of that will depend on what Nigeria do.”
Bafana will return from Uyo early on Monday morning and immediately travel to Rustenburg for a friendly international against Zambia, but Baxter wasn’t swinging on the chandeliers with confirmation of a fixture that is almost meaningless. Nigeria managed to organise two matches, against Corsica and Togo, several days before this weekend’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
“It’s an important game in terms of development, the long term and the bigger picture. Some of the younger players that have worked hard in this camp, will get a run against Zambia because they deserve and we want to see them,” said Baxter. “I would have preferred it be before the Nigeria game ... but that is not possible, so I am not going to cry about that.”