JOHANNESBURG – On Thursday Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter holds his first squad announcement since being appointed and has promised to select “warriors” for the opening 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier against Nigeria in Uyo on June 10.
The Scotsman wants power and aggression, players who will not shy away from a tackle or be bullied by an improving Super Eagles side. But just who fits this profile in the pool of available players? Will Baxter make surprise call-ups, go for the tried and tested or simply make slight tweaks to teams previously selected by Shakes Mashaba, his predecessor? Here we take a look at all the different departments and what Baxter can work with.
Baxter singled out Kaizer Chiefs shot-stopper Itumeleng Khune as an important player in his first official match in charge of the national team. Although injuries have troubled Khune this season at club level, he’s fit enough to be the backbone of what is expected to be an experienced squad for Bafana’s journey to the Afcon in Cameroon. In the event Khune, who has made 82 appearances for the national team to date, is unavailable, then Darren Keet, a league winner this season with Bidvest Wits, will be a strong back-up.
Options: Khune, Keet and Ronwen Williams
This is where the coach will have to make tough decisions. Under Mashaba, Bafana were often very stingy at the back, with Mulomowandau Mathoho partnered with either Rivaldo Coetzee or Thulani Hlatshwayo. A pairing that could give Baxter what he is looking for is probably that of Mathoho and Hlatshwayo, but then again, Clayton Daniels could be an alternative as well, especially seeing that the coach has been working with him at SuperSport United over the past 16 months. He is as aggressive as they come, but his selection would be more about picking horses for courses than continuity. It is in central defence where Baxter might have a hard time deciding who to call-up, with Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Tebogo Langerman having proven to be the best at rightback and left-back, respectively, this season. Pity that Buhle Mkhwanazi, who has been a star for Wits alongside Hlatshwayo, is injured and only available around October.
Options: Mathoho, Hlatshwayo, Daniels, Coetzee, Lorenzo Gordinho, Mphahlele, Langerman
Given that Bafana will be on the road, it’s a no-brainer that the squad will need to have fewer ball players and more grafters and fetchers. Mamelodi Sundowns skipper Hlompho Kekana immediately comes to mind, so does Andile Jali, although he is struggling for match fitness, and SuperSport captain Dean Furman, a player Baxter also mentioned as possibly the spine of the team when he was talking about Khune and picking “warriors”. Where that leaves runners like Keagan Dolly, Thulani Serero, Themba Zwane and even young Luther Singh will be revealed. The coach gave the impression he wanted to keep it as tight as possible in midfield when facing Nigeria next month. He can’t ignore Kamohelo Mokotjo either, a player still enjoying rave reviews in Holland.
Options: Kekana, Tiyani Mabunda, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Jali, Serero, Zwane, Singh, Furman, Abbubaker Mobara
This is a problem area. Baxter’s predecessors all promised to solve the conundrum early in their tenure, only to sing a different tune when the going got tough. Baxter wouldn’t have taken the job if he felt he couldn't win games and qualify for major tournaments with this team, and maybe with Kermit Erasmus back in the picture, this is a start. However, Tokelo Rantie, a man who never gives Nigerian defenders any breathing space, appears to still be in limbo as far as his selection is concerned after he failed to travel with Bafana to Burkina Faso in October last year for their 2018 World Cup qualification opener. His speed and ability to spot pockets of spaces behind the defence would be key. Baxter will also be under pressure to call-up PSL top scorer Lebogang Manyama, despite the Cape Town City forward not necessarily fitting the “warrior” profile. Then again, Bafana haven’t had a proven goal scorer for sometime. What about Thamsanqa Gabuza?
Options: Erasmus, Percy Tau, Manyama, Rantie, Gabuza