Bafana Bafana paid for their rather defensive approach when a second-half goal by Jonathan Kodjia handed Ivory Coast a 1-0 victory at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cairo on Monday.
And if it wasn’t for Ronwen Williams, Bafana Bafana may have conceded a few more goals at the Al Salam Stadium.
Williams was somewhat of a surprise choice in goal ahead of Darren Keet, but his selection proved to be an inspired one by coach Stuart Baxter.
The SuperSport United goalkeeper commanded his penalty area well, and his most impressive save on a hot Cairo afternoon came in the first half when he kept out Kodjia from point-blank range in the 32nd minute.
From the outset, though, the physical Ivorians were much more threatening when they had the ball. They kept possession well, and an early through-ball nearly saw Kodjia sneak in at the near-post, but he miskicked the ball.
There was little penetration from the South African midfield of Kamohelo Mokotjo, Dean Furman, Themba Zwane and Lebohang Maboe, who were unable to unlock the Ivory Coast defence.
They didn’t utilise the pace of Percy Tau and the presence of Lebo Mothiba, and perhaps missed the creativity of Thulani Serero, who was kept on the bench, and it was almost as if they were playing for a draw.
The only real way Bafana could threaten was from set-pieces, where Sifiso Hlanti delivered a couple of tasty free kicks, but the Ivorians cleared their lines well.
Bafana captain Thulani Hlatshwayo did go close with a header from a Hlanti cross in the 25th minute, but that was as good as it got for the South Africans in the first half.
Nicolas Pepe hit the upright for Ivory Coast with Williams beaten with a 31st minute free kick as well.
At least Bafana’s defence kept their shape for most of the match, but one lapse saw them concede the decisive goal with a sucker punch from their opponents.
The South Africans were caught asleep on the right when Max Gradel was left in space, and the forward whipped in a perfect square ball for Kodjia, who was unmarked and slid the ball past Williams in the 64th minute.
Baxter introduced Sibusiso Vilakazi and Lars Veldwijk after that, but it had little effect on Bafana’s performance.
Ivory Coast’s advantage grew as the match wore on, with Pepe and Gradel going close.
With the opening game out of the way, Baxter will have to rethink his midfield in particular to come away with victories over Namibia (Friday 28 June at 10pm) and Morocco (Monday 1 July at 6pm).