Group E’s “Top of the Table” clash between South Africa and Nigeria took centre stage at FNB stadium on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon for their African Cup of Nations qualifiers. The Super Eagles went into this encounter hoping to avenge their 2-0 home loss to Bafana Bafana in the qualifying opener a year ago. However, the attempt at revenge was futile and the match ended in a 1-1 draw.
It was an electrifying atmosphere where enthusiastic fans eagerly awaited the teams’ best performances. Nigeria played fast paced and high energy football in the opening minutes of the match which resulted in them getting the early lead in the 10th minute through an own goal from Buhle Mkhwanazi who deflected Samuel Kalu’s cross into his own net. The home side managed to pull themselves together and passed the ball freely and with reasonable accuracy to find one another going forward.
Thamsanqa Mkhize later connected with Man of the Match, Percy Tau. Tau ran past Collins Jamilu and forced the Nigerian goalkeeper Ezenwa to commit himself before crossing the ball to Lebo Mothiba who tapped the ball into an empty net, equalising for the home-side in the 26th minute and making it an impressive four goals in five games for Mothiba. Kelechi Ihemanacho had a clear cut chance to score with the goal posts at his mercy but his first touch let him down and Bafana Bafana got off the hook.
12 minutes into the second half, Nigeria was awarded a corner-kick and John Ogu’s header was cleared by Themba Zwane who was guarding the near post. Nigeria dominanted ball possession in the second half, as a result coach Stuart Baxter made his first substitution bringing in Orlando Pirates Striker Thembikosi Lorch for Thulani Serero who had an unimpressive game after being called back to the national team. The match was tentative for the last 20 minutes, favouring the visitors.
Bafana got lucky not to not concede when in the 83rd minute as Super Eagles scored again, this time through Ahmed Musa following a defence splitting pass, but the lines-man flagged him for off-side much to the dismay of the Nigerian fans. Television replay later showed the goal should have stood. Two minutes from the final whistle, Hlanti’s deep cross from the left-flank found a late arriving Thami Mkhize who made a blunder of his header sending the ball across the goals. Nigeria held firm until the final whistle and the draw sees them top the log and a guaranteed spot at next year’s AFCON for the first time since 2013.
Some would say that South African coach, Stuart Baxter’s, game-plan was rather questionable, “He didn’t seem to have a plan-B to attack the visiting side, opting to make one substitute only and play with two defensive midfielders. His strategy didn’t make much sense for a team playing at home,” says upset fan, Themba Steenkamp. Questions still remain if Stuart Baxter has the nous to take this group of talented players to the next level. After the match Baxter said “We are massively disappointed of course, with the result. Every player is very deflated, I don’t want to say embarrassed, because that would be deriding the effort they put in but they know the result was important for us and they are very down.”
South Africa will have to avoid defeat when they play their last group-match away against Libya who thrashed Seychelles 8-1. Bafana Bafana must either win or draw to book place at next years’ AFCON, a tournament they last featured in 2015. The two sides meet will meet next year in March.