‘Knives to throats’ as South Africa seek miracle
South Africa coach Stuart Baxter says his team have “knives to their throats” as they attempt an extraordinary qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Bottom-of-the-table Bafana Bafana (The Boys) face Senegal in Polokwane and Dakar between Friday and Tuesday and must win both matches to snatch first place in Group D.
Senegal top the table with eight points from four matches, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde have six from five, and South Africa four from four.
South Africa and Senegal have an extra match because the 2-1 win by Bafana last November was annulled due to FIFA finding the Ghanaian referee guilty of “match manipulation”.
Africa will send five teams to Russia next year and three places are still up for grabs after Nigeria and Egypt secured places last month.
Tunisia hold a three-point lead over the Democratic Republic of Congo in Group A and need a draw at home against unpredictable Libya to ensure qualification.
A draw will also suffice for long-time World Cup absentees Morocco, who take a one-point Group C advantage over the Ivory Coast to Abidjan.
England-born Baxter was upbeat this week despite a serious of blows, and the 64-year-old insists star-stacked Senegal can be beaten twice.
“We have knives to our throats,” he admitted, “but maybe we can sneak into the World Cup through the back door.
“There is lots of pressure on Senegal because almost everyone expects them to qualify. They do not want to throw it all away.
“We must replicate the aggression shown in our win over Burkina Faso last month,” said Baxter, who failed to get South Africa to the 2006 World Cup during a prior spell as coach.
South Africa have lost two midfielders with Hlompho Kekana pulling out after his mother-in-law died and Thulani Serero shunning a call-up because he was not guaranteed a starting place.
However, Baxter cheered the arrival at training of goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, two days after officials said a fractured bone above his eye would sideline him for six weeks.
The 30-year-old long-time star hopes to face the Senegalese Teranga Lions using a protective mask.
Originally doubtful because of a hamstring injury, star Senegal attacker Sadio Mane is now set to play having helped Liverpool triumph at West Ham last weekend.
“I do not want to lose five seconds on him (Mane),” was the defiant message from Baxter. “He has got a head, two arms and two legs just like everybody else.”
French coach Herve Renard has been busy this week plotting the downfall of the Ivory Coast, who he guided to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations title.
Morocco are seeking a first World Cup appearance since 1998 while the Ivory Coast qualified for the last three tournaments in Germany, South Africa and Brazil.
“I believe the most solid and best organised team will go to Russia,” said Renard, “and I hope that team is Morocco.”
Belgian Marc Wilmots has struggled since being hired last year to coach the Ivorians, with a shock home loss to Gabon a major World Cup setback.
But he refused to see the match as a personal showdown between him and Renard: “I have never seen a coach score a goal,” he told reporters.
Fit-again Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha is back for the Ivorians and veteran attackers Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will bring precious experience to the Abidjan cauldron.
Although it is hard to imagine Tunisia failing against Libya, a 1-0 defeat coupled with a 1-0 win for DR Congo over Guinea in Kinshasa would send the central Africans to Russia.
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