A first half Lebo Mothiba strike cancelled out Buhle Mkhwanazi’s own goal to give Bafana Bafana a chance of qualifying.
After a win and a draw over Seychelles during the previous international break, Bafana found themselves just a point adrift of leaders Nigeria heading into the penultimate game in Group E. This meant that victory over the away side would be enough for Bafana to guarantee their place in next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
However, with injuries having hampered Bafana head coach Stuart Baxter’s squad selection for the clash, particularly in midfield, the technical team was forced to tinker with their line-up.
Baxter relied on the Mamelodi Sundowns partnership of Hlompho Kekana and Tiyani Mabunda while Themba Zwane and Thulani Serero came into the squad to partner the Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba upfront,
Meanwhile for Nigeria, pressure would be on Gernot Rohr’s men, who were without top scorer Odion Ighalo. The former Watford forward has scored six goals in the qualifiers, and his absence due to injury meant that Ahmed Musa would have to withstand the burden of expectations of an entire nation.
However, it was Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi, who looked to take matters into his own hands early on, as he showed good skill and composure to unleash an effort at Itumeleng Khune’s goal. But the South Africa No.1 was up to the task as he made a good save to keep the scores level.
Nigeria were certainly looking the brighter of the two sides and their early pressure was rewarded as defender Mkhwanazi headed the ball past his own goalkeeper, putting the pressure firmly on the home side.
That was the first goal conceded by Bafana in qualifying.
At the other end, Bafana came out firing and almost had an immediate response, only for the Nigeria defender to make a fantastic last-ditch tackle to ensure that Tau would not get his shot away with only the keeper to beat.
Bafana were playing a rather high line and the pace of Musa left the backline exposed during the opening stages. This saw Khune needing to be alert and quick off the mark to avert danger.
Baxter’s men though, who bagged a total of eight goals in qualifying ahead of the game, did show some good touches in an around the Nigeria box but struggled to trouble the Nigerian keeper.
That was until the 26th minute where a moment of brilliance saw Tau set up Mothiba for his second goal of the campaign. The Belgium-based star, who is on the books of English Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion, sliced past the Nigerian defence before unselfishly putting the ball on a plate for the 22-year-old.
Both sides were keen on grabbing the ascendency and although, Nigeria did look dangerous, the goal was not forthcoming as they headed into the break level.
The start of the second half saw Baxter refrain from making any changes, in spite of Thulani Serero looking out of sorts in the first half. The Bafana technical team’s persistence in Serero, who returned to the setup after being exiled, was rewarded as he began to come more into the game.
62.5% of Bafana’s goals in qualifiers had come in the second half and this showed in the performance as the Southern African nation looked more organised and purposeful in attack.
But the Nigerian threat remained, and had it not been for Zwane on the line, who headed away a goal bound header, Nigeria could have been ahead.
With Nigeria seemingly coming back into the game, unsurprisingly, Baxter opted to withdraw Serero for Orlando Pirates star Thembinkosi Lorch on the hour mark.
As the heat became a factor, Bafana were looking to profit on Nigeria’s defence tiring as they looked to feed the pacey Lorch with the ball. This saw Nigeria respond with an attacking change of their own as Isaac Success was brought on.
Nonetheless, Nigeria should have found themselves ahead late on as once again, a set piece proved dangerous. Kenneth Omeruo had a golden chance as he outjumped the defender, but his header flew just wide of Khune’s goal to the relief of the South African fans in attendance.
Bafana were holding on by the skin of their teeth as minutes later, Musa was then denied a goal as the linesman flagged for offside.
With time running out, Bafana full-back Hlanti had a rare chance going forward but his late header failed to find the target.
Despite both side’s eagerness to find a winner, the game ended in a draw meaning that Bafana would now need just a point in the final game against Libya to reach the Afcon 2019.