POLOKWANE - Stuart Baxter has managed to remain calm in the face of adversity ahead of Friday night's first of two important fixtures in which Bafana Bafana’s 2018 World Cup fate will be decided.
A dramatic week began when the coach told reporters that goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune and captain Thulani Hlatshwayo were doubtful, and Thulani Serero had asked to be excused from the national team camp because of a lack of game time.
Then midfielder Hlompho Kekana had to rush home following the death of a close family member, while some of the overseas-based players were delayed.
Baxter has wrestled with that all week, while also concocting a game plan he hopes will sink Group D leaders Senegal at Peter Mokaba Stadium - the first hurdle before Dakar for the away leg on Tuesday.
“The first thing that the players want is that they should have a coach that they need, not the coach that they get on the day,” Baxter said. “I have to work through past experience and draw on the things that I’ve learnt.
“I have to make sure I am the coach they need in terms of selection and not walk around looking like I am having a semi-heart attack. Have I been in the exact same situation like this? Not really, but I have been in a lot of pressure situations. Big games. Champions League or international games, where you only get one go at it. And we only got one go at the Burkina Faso game and won. That’s remembered.
“That was a massive game. Without that result and performance, we were not going to be in this situation, but we can’t concentrate more because this means more. That’s not how it works.”
Bafana have to beat Senegal on Friday (7pm) to avoid their trip to Dakar being a dead rubber.
Khune could still be in the starting line-up, but skipper Hlatshwayo was all but ruled out by the coach.
Baxter admitted that all that’s happened in the build-up to Friday's match had him feeling like a “pregnant lady about to give birth”.
“I think people have enjoyed this. You guys (the press) like it because it gives you something to write about, the fans like it because when they are sitting in the shebeen they have got something to argue about. And in some masochistic way, I think even the players enjoy it. Maybe they think we have to go through this before we settle," he said.
“I am the only one who doesn’t seem to like it because all this time I am like a pregnant lady about to give birth.”
A win will certainly give Bafana hope that they can reach the World Cup in Russia next year, especially after all hope was lost two months ago after a shambolic performance in Praia against Cape Verde and in the home leg in Durban against the same team.
Those back-to-back 2-1 defeats left Bafana’s hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads.
Baxter had a surprise element in store for Burkina Faso in last month’s emphatic 3-1 victory at the Calabash, and has certainly been forced to come up with one for tonight’s match, partly because of the injuries, suspensions and Serero’s shock withdrawal from the national team on the day he was expected to arrive.
“What happens with all this ‘drama’ is that you lose focus on the things that will actually win us the game,” said Baxter.