JOHANNESBURG - Not only was Dino Ndlovu’s 63rd minute strike for Qarabag away to Danish side FC Copenhagen crucial in changing the club’s fortunes, catapulting them into the group stages of the Uefa Champions League - it might prove to be the most important goal in his career so far.
The little known champions from the Azerbaijan Premier League, where Ndlovu has been playing and scoring with relative consistency, will now face Chelsea, AS Roma and Atletico Madrid in the world’s biggest club competition starting next week.
And one man who will watch Qarabag with keen interest is Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter.
“I have said before that the league he (Ndlovu) is playing in is probably not the best in the world, but if a player is scoring it builds confidence. That’s why I have had him checked out in the Champions League, and that league is a good league,” the national team coach said.
Baxter has been bombarded with questions about Ndlovu’s omission from Bafana since he took over, so calls for him to reconsider grew even louder when the striker - by scoring in the 2-2 draw against FC Copenhagen last week - took his tally of goals to 38 in 61 starts since he moved abroad at the start of the 2015/16 season.
“A former Juventus scout saw him against Copenhagen, in Copenhagen, so I got a good report on him and the game before in Qarabag because I had a scout down there that was watching the game for Arsenal,” Baxter added.
“I contacted Dino after the first game and we had a chat where I told him he is very close (to being called up). I told him he didn’t make the Cape Verde camp because it was (announced) before the second game.
“I said I don’t want to make anymore changes to what I am making at the moment. I don’t want to throw all the preparation for Nigeria away, but certain changes will be made. He was good with that and said he was going to keep working.
“If we were playing one World Cup qualifier followed by a friendly, Dino would have been in the squad because I would have wanted to see him, but not throw him under so much pressure.”
So, what did Baxter see in those reports on Ndlovu, who had a poor scoring ratio while playing for Bloemfontein Celtic, SuperSport United and Mpumalanga Black Aces in the PSL?
And why is it that the striker is a scoring machine abroad?
“In both reports, they were talking about hard work, getting into the box and getting to finish off the goals. What I also liked about those games was his willingness to work in behind the defence,” Baxter explained.
"Before he would go, but not be very effective. He is improving. The scout told me he worked very much on his own, without a lot of support, but he was holding the ball and playing it back.
“That was interesting because we have very few. (Tokelo) Rantie is one that works the spaces best and Bradley (Grobler) is a link player, otherwise we don’t really have. Even though we have a lot of pacey players, no one really wants to run in there. In SA we want the ball to our feet.
“He went to Israel and did well, didn’t he? Everywhere else he has been he does well. Maybe he just thrives in a structured environment because when he was in the PSL, and I know the game has developed since and the coaches coach better, he didn’t know his role.
"I didn’t see the before and after. I can only see the stats, that he scores goals there and not here, hence maybe SuperSport were not satisfied with their investment.”
Qarabag open their Champions League journey with an away game to English league champions Chelsea next week Tuesday.
“He could have a great game at Stamford Bridge and maybe dispel this argument that the Azerbaijan league is not so great. He has a good game there and he is probably gone to a bigger club in Europe. I sent him a text to say he must enjoy it and he replied saying they are going to enjoy being underdogs,” said Baxter.