He real test for the “new” Bafana Bafana team will come tonight when they take on top-ranked Algeria in their opening African Nations Cup Group C clash in Mongomo, Equatorial Guinea.
Bafana have seen a surge in their fortunes under new coach Shakes Mashaba, who has discarded their top European talent for home-based youngsters and gone unbeaten in his first 10 games in charge of what is a fourth spell at the helm of the national team.
Last Wednesday’s 3-0 hammering of fancied Mali in their final warm-up provided more evidence that the revival of the team was no flash in the pan.
Mashaba is no tactical genius; his style is very uncomplicated, but he is a strict disciplinarian and a fine motivator, and has the ability to get the players to rally behind him.
It helps that he coached many of his present squad in the junior national teams, nurturing them through their formative years and acting as a father figure.
But in a Nations Cup pool that includes excellent Algeria, a Senegal team on the rise and the always competitive Ghana, by far his biggest tests await.
Any sort of positive result tonight will be seen as another step forward for this side, with Mashaba saying pre-tournament he was targeting five points from the pool – a win and two draws.
“We are looking forward to the start of the tournament,” Mashaba said.
“We are happy with the preparations, especially in the matches against Cameroon (1-1) and Mali. We now know what we are going to face in Equatorial Guinea and, yes, it is going to be tougher than this.
“But I would like to say to our boys, job well done. Mali had almost all their players from abroad, which is a clear indication that it was not an easy game.”
Bafana will have to check on the fitness of bustling forward Tokelo Rantie, so important to their counter-attack style of play, as well as experienced striker Bernard Parker.
There are also concerns for teenage defender Rivaldo Coetzee.
Algeria played just one warm-up international on their way to Equatorial Guinea, a 1-1 draw with Tunisia on January 11.
They were the best of the African sides at the World Cup in Brazil last year with their French connection of players that sees most of their squad born and raised in Europe.
New coach Christian Gourcuff has kept much the same squad that did duty in Brazil and his only injury concern appears to be that of experienced defender Rafik Halliche, who sat out training this past week.
Last night’s Afcon results: Zambia and the DR Congo drew 1-1. Tunisia and the Cape Verde also drew 1-1.
– Nick Said