Bafana Bafana are out of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), the players producing a battling display but again the tactics of coach Stuart Baxter will be questioned, in Wednesday night’s 2-1 quarterfinal defeat at Cairo International Stadium.
Samuel Chukwueze slotted Nigeria ahead in the 26th minute, Bongani Zungu’s 71st-minute VAR-assisted header pulling the tenacious South Africans back.
William Troost-Ekong scored from sloppy defending at a corner in the 88th. Bafana have a magnificent, almost in-explainable 1-0 shock of Egypt in the round of 16 as their last-16 memory of Egypt 2019.
For the rest, they were beautifully structured but unfathomably seemed to hold something back – including in last night’s performance – in an attack that could have produced so much more had runners like Percy Tau and Thembonkosi Lorch just been set free more, as they were against the Pharaohs.
Baxter had out an unchanged line-up from the one that shocked Egypt here on Saturday night.
He retained the 4-3-3 formation, and seemed set to employ the high press, perhaps tweaked for a vastly different style opponent, that was so effective against the hosts.
Super Eagles coach Gernot Rhor brought 20-year-old Villareal winger Chukwueze into the dangerous frontline of Ahmed Musa, Alex Iwobi and tournament joint-top scorer Odion Ighalo who were responsible for their team’s comeback from 2-1 in Nigeria’s 3-2 last-16 win against Cameroon.
Baxter did not so much tweak his high press, as abandoned it. Bafana sat deeper. But hey came out confident on the ball, having strong possession on the opening 15 minutes.
The Super Eagles, wary of the threat of SA, had a plan to utilise their explosiveness and earn an advantage.
Gradually they muscled the South Africans out physically, in the fashion they know is so effective against Bafana.
The pace and power of Iwobi and Ahmed in particular started to pry half-openings. Then Iwobi erupted with a turn and pace to beat Thamsanqa Mkhize down the left and squared to the centre where Chukwueze was waiting.
The winger’s first touch was onto Thulani Hlatshwayo, the rebound fell to his feet and he could easily slot low past Ronwen Williams.
SA worked back some form of momentum by the end of the half. But this looked like it was going to a familiar script for the Super Eagles.
Things started the same way in the second half. Midfielder Peter Etebo’s swerving free-kick was be palmed by Williams onto his crossbar.
Nigeria upped the intensity of their movement. Bafana looked like Muhammad Ali employing the rope-a-dope against George Foreman.
And yet, structured, tenacious South Africa looked like they could sneak something.
Then Zungu produced a looping header in over goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi from a Tau free-kick that appeared to have been flicked on by Hlatshwayo, but seemed offside.
But the VAR replay showed the ball came off Ighalo’s back, so Zungu’s goal stood.
SA appeared headed for extra time when their strongest area of the tournament let them down.
From a corner by substitute Moses Simon, Williams came off his line and missed and Ekong was left alone to volley in.
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