South Africa have a superabundance of very good full-backs to ponder over, perhaps the best collection by any team at the tournament. Anele Ngcongca and Tsepo Masilela will start at right and left back, respectively, but the experienced Siboniso Gaxa and Thabo Matlaba are great options to have on the bench. The full-backs are encouraged to go forward but the consistent miscommunication in attacks usually leaves them stranded upfield and their centre-backs are then outnumbered on the counter-attack.
The English Football League pair of Kagisho Dikgacoi and Dean Furman will form the midfield pivot. Furman simply retains the possession whilst Dikgacoi, who is less assured on the ball, adds further midfield maintenance with the capability of scoring goals from deep, as his five goals for Crystal Palace this season indicates. There is a more complete option under consideration in the form of the rangy Reneilwe Letsholonyane, who also has the vision to disguise through-balls to the players ahead of him.
South Africa are paying the price for turnovers
Despite assembling a mix of promising and good attacking players the incessant change of regimes and player personnel has resulted in a coterie of players not dancing to the same vuvuzela beat. At times, you can’t help but wonder how poorly choreographed their goal celebrations will be – if they even manage to score a goal, that is. There’s an epidemic problem in the attacking third whereby not only do they struggle to score, but they are also bereft of the understanding to connect elementary moves. They had the large share of possession in the Mandela Cup match against Zambia in November but were unable to produce anything with it, and, to a lesser degree, the same assessment is applicable to their recent warm-up friendlies versus Norway and Algeria.
Katlego ‘Killer’ Mphela and Thulani Serero are two glaring reasons South African fans should have a ready-to-smile subtlety on their lips when they analyse their chances. The former has an impressive goalscoring record at international level and makes intelligent runs behind centre-backs, whilst the latter has the ability to make this Cup of Nations a career zenith and bona-fide prelude of what is to come. The effervescent Tokelo Rantie, who presses very well, Bernard Parker and Lehlohonolo Majoro add more variation in attack.
The home crowd
How far South Africa progress will depend on whether they can develop an understanding as an offensive unit. Is it achievable in a short period period of time? It’s hard to foresee it. But the exultant home crowd – 90,000+ in South Africa’s case – can push teams to unprecedented, mythical heights as we witnessed in last year’s Cup of Nations co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. It’s not enough to convert the out-of-sorts Siphiwe Tshabalala into Lionel Messi but it may just be enough to convert him into Marc Overmars in his pomp.
Coach: Gordon Igesund
One of Africa’s most distinguished coaches, Igesund is the only manager to have won the South African Premier League championship with four different clubs (Manning Rangers, Orlando Pirates, Santos and Mamelodi Sundowns).
Key man: Katlego Mphela
The Mamelodi Sundowns striker’s apogee came in the 2009 Confederations Cup third place play-off when he scored a brace against Spain, his second goal a howling howitzer of a free-kick which flew past Iker Casillas to force the game into extra time. His all-around ability makes him a vital player, but if he is to produce the goods at the apex of his career the service around him needs to improve.
One to watch: Thulani Serero
Thulani Serero will be right up there in the head group of razzmatazz rascals. The highly-rated Ajax attacking midfielder was a major doubt for the tournament after a serious injury in September last year, but has slowly been shifting through the gears in warm-up friendlies.