UYO, Nigeria – Usually clock-watchers when they take the lead, Bafana Bafana continued to press Nigeria here on Saturday evening – a game plan that led to a historic 2-0 victory that ended the dominance of the Super Eagles.
In his first official game (of his second stint) in charge, coach Stuart Baxter urged his side to keep their momentum regardless of the score-line, an Achilles heel for Bafana under his predecessor Shakes Mashaba.
This 2019 Group E Africa Cup of Nations opening qualifier for the two sides wasn’t as epic by any stretch of the imagination, but victory for South Africa was of huge significance, a first in over two decades.
Baxter, who actually did beat Nigeria in a friendly match in 2004 at Ellis Park in his first spell as Bafana mentor, couldn’t have asked for a better start.
The Super Eagles have a record as South Africa’s bogey side, even from the days of apartheid, but that came to a halt at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium here in Uyo.
In a rebuilding phase under new coach Gernot Rohr, who picked a highly inexperienced and youthful side for this qualifier, there was a sense that Bafana would prove to be a serious test in the build-up earlier this week.
The opening few minutes were played with caution by the visitors, with Nigeria pressing and the dominant side overall, except in the final third, where Manchester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho was a lone ranger.
Despite the Super Eagles enjoying the lion’s share of the ball possession, Bafana had the best chance on the stroke of halftime when Themba Zwane struck the post after a fumble by goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi.
But perhaps that was some sort of a morale booster for Baxter’s men, who emerged from the tunnel and were more aware and began to create clear-cut chances.
Percy Tau kept his cool to go around the Nigerian goalkeeper to score the second Bafana goal. Photo: BackpagePix
A bit before the clock hit the hour-mark, Tokelo Rantie broke the deadlock to silence the home crowd. That South Africa scored so quickly in the second half might have been a surprise to a few, but the man who got the goal was not.
The last time Rantie was at this very venue, he scored twice in a 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, although the match ended in a draw.
Then, Bafana finished top of the group and denied Nigeria an opportunity to defend their trophy in Equatorial Guinea. Here, the striker received a delicious cross from Ramahlwe Mphahlele to beat Akpeyi on his near post.
Zwane could have added a second minutes later, but struck the post yet again.
But substitute Percy Tau added to the tally much later in the match when he beat an offside trap following a counter-attack as Nigeria were in search of an equaliser. At 2-0, Nigeria looked deflated and Bafana on the verge of an historic win.
Baxter was spot-on with his tactics and will fancy his chances of getting Bafana to the Nations Cup in Cameroon in 2019.
Plenty of work ahead, but an ideal start from the Scotsman.