CAPE TOWN - New Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter’s success as a coach is founded on sound organisation and tactical discipline. As was evident during his tenure at Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United, his philosophy is all about defensive shape and structure – and, with that as the platform, teams can go in search of victory.
But, as the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria away in Uyo looms large on Saturday, the big question is: Has Baxter had enough time to inculcate this strategy into the Bafana squad? Because there is no doubt that Nigeria’s great strength is in attack and the South Africans are going to need the new coach’s defence-first, counter-attack approach to combat the super-talented Super Eagles.
While Baxter has only recently stepped into the Bafana hot seat, and is already dealing with an injury crisis in the squad, Nigeria’s German tactician Gernot Rohr has been hard at work in preparing his squad with training camps and friendly games in Corsica and Paris.
Rohr surprised many by omitting Chelsea star Victor Moses from his squad, but such is the talent at Nigeria’s disposal that the English Premiership title-winner’s absence probably won’t be felt all that much. Moses is expected to undergo toe surgery soon.
Earlier this week, Baxter named Wits defender Thulani Hlatshwayo as the new Bafana captain. Nicknamed “Tyson” because of his fearless commitment, the skipper, and his defence, will have to be on their toes to deal with Nigeria’s highly-touted attackers.
NIGERIA’S DANGER MEN
The 21-year-old Arsenal forward may not get a lot of goals, but he’s the creative presence that frees up opportunities for teammates to plunder the opposition net. Like the Artful Dodger in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, Iwobi has the skill and dexterity to pickpocket the best of defences. The nephew of former Nigerian great Jay-Jay Okocha, Iwobi played youth football for England, but eventually decided to represent Nigeria at international level.
After making a sensational impact during his initial break-through at Arsenal, things went a bit quiet for the midfielder this season, especially during the Gunners’ difficult patch a few months ago. But there’s no doubting his exceptional talent – and he will be a major headache for Bafana on Saturday.
The thing all defenders hate in strikers is speed. They hate turning around, because that is when they are at their weakest, and it’s usually forwards with fiery pace who are able to unsettle them. Nigeria have such a footballer in 24-year-old Leicester City attacker Ahmed Musa. Blessed with blinding speed, he’s in on goal before the opposition has had an opportunity to blink. Musa, came to prominence at Russian club CSKA Moscow before signing for Leicester last season.
It proved to be a bit of a struggle adapting to the English Premier League and he was in and out of the team. He will be much better next season, when he will be expected to give full vent to his ability to terrorise defences. Despite his club struggles, Musa has, nevertheless, been in top form for Nigeria – and, in last week’s 3-0 friendly hammering of Togo, he netted twice. He’s in scoring form; Bafana have been warned.
Just 20-years-old, Kelechi Iheanacho has already made an impact at Manchester City. While he’s number three in the pecking order, behind the brilliant Sergio Aguero and rising young star Gabriel Jesus, whenever called upon Iheanacho, pictured centre, has never disappointed. He’s come off the bench and scored some priceless goals for City.
The striker announced himself to the international football world during the 2013 Under-17 World Cup and it was based on his performances in that tournament that he eventually put pen to paper at the big-spending English side. A versatile forward, with an uncanny eye for goal, Iheanacho will need to be closely monitored by the Bafana defence.
The relatively unknown 20-year-old striker, Henry Onyekuru, has been thrust into the media spotlight because of speculation that he is likely to sign for Arsenal. A prolific marksman, the KAS Eupen forward finished the season as joint top-scorer with 22 goals in the Belgian top division.
Pace, quick feet and a composed finisher, Onyekuru is earmarked for a bright future in the game, for both club and country. A direct runner and able to ghost past defenders, the burgeoning young footballer could be a handful for Hlatshwayo and company on Saturday.
Football, though, is not just about offence and goals, which is why for the above-mentioned players to have the space and freedom to shine, they need to have a solid defence.
And it’s here where 20-year-old Leicester City central midfielder Wilfred Ndidi is a vital cog in the Nigerian machine.
Having made his name at Genk in Belgium, he arrived at Leicester last season as the “new N’Golo Kante”. It took a while to settle, but, once he was accustomed to the pace of the English game, he quickly gave notice that he’s a defensive midfielder to watch. And for his industry and contribution, Ndidi, was named as Leicester’s Young Player of the Season.
If Iwobi, Musa, Iheanacho and Onyekuru are to have an influence on the game against Bafana, then you can be sure that Ndidi’s combative presence behind them will be crucial.