Football’s unpredictability remains its major point of interest. Things do not always go as expected, and that can have both positive and negative connotations.
In Cairo on Wednesday night, it was expected that South Africa would provide Nigeria’s sternest test so far at the Africa Cup of Nations. Bafana Bafana had produced a masterful tactical display to kill of the hopes of the host nation, and seemed to be peaking at just the right time.
Even more pertinently, Stuart Baxter’s side had come through two meetings with Nigeria in qualifying unscathed, snagging four points and seeming to hold something of a psychological edge.
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And yet, once the game kicked off, all of that seemed to ebb away. All of the confidence and snap that had crackled through the South Africans as they hunted down the Pharaohs four days prior was gone.
The bane of Bafana, and perhaps South African football in general, is in its lack of certitude in the final third. Percy Tau and Thembinkosi Lorch are gifted footballers, Lebo Mothiba is a forward with a tremendous work rate, and Bongani Zungu had a fine tournament. However, there is a real dearth of players willing to take the decisive action, to take that leap of faith into the unknown that is the opponent’s penalty area.
As a consequence, South Africa simply do not score enough goals, and so when Samuel Chukwueze was afforded two bites in quick succession inside the box to open the scoring, the sense that the game had gotten away from the Rainbow Nation was clear. For a side that wants to play on its own terms and at its own pace, being forced to chase is pretty much the worst possible fate.
Lorch lurched from one flank to the other, and Tau found himself rather easily tied up by Chidozie Awaziem; where were the goals supposed to come from if, with the middle of the pitch clogged, the wide forwards were unable to make hay?
Yet somehow, someway, the Super Eagles managed to inject some excitement into a game that looked like it was sleepwalking toward the inevitable. An inadvertent flick, a looping header, and only the tournament’s second VAR intervention was all it took. That and a myriad of missed opportunities on the break, the bulk of which were spurned by speedy captain Ahmed Musa.
It is a bad habit the Super Eagles have – being able to synthesize their own chaos out of fairly trace raw material. It would fly in the face of every received wisdom and every footballing aphorism known to the purist if, in spite of such an unbefitting trait, Nigeria were to go all the way to the final of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
And yet, here they are, just two games away from number four, finding a way, and a second wind as the waves get higher and the competition becomes fiercer.
The menace of Chukwueze, all mischief and interesting hair, might have something to do with it. Here, he was superb, off to the races whenever the ball arrived at his first, but not without first welcoming it with a gentle caress.
He has come into his own in the latter stages, and as it increasingly becomes clear to Gernot Rohr that simply being solid is not enough, he could prove the difference between finishing par for the course and a stunning eagle.