Baxter has ticked the boxes in the buildup to Afcon qualifier against Nigeria‚ but can he get a result?
Stuart Baxter has ticked just about every box in his meticulous preparations for Saturday's 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria in Uyo.
It has been about as encouraging a sign as any that Baxter in his limited time since being appointed Bafana Bafana coach a month ago‚ and week's buildup to the game at Godswill Akpabio International Stadium‚ has tried to cover every base he can.
Let's go through them:
- Baxter named a sensible‚ well thought-out‚ strongest possible squad‚ with no surprise inclusions or exclusions.
- Watching Bafana train in Johannesburg and Uyo‚ the array of playing expertise and foreign and local-based stars available is impressive. So‚ picking a strong squad - tick.
- The coach picked up a phone to call the one notable omission‚ Thulani Serero‚ to explain the reason was because of the forward's lack of game time at Ajax Amsterdam and uncertainty over his next club destination as his contract ends. Communication - tick.
- Baxter roped in a Manchester United scout to monitor Nigeria's three-week camp in France and warm-up games against Togo and a Corsican XI‚ and the coach gathered intelligence on the Super Eagles. Researching the opposition - tick.
- Baxter has tailor-made his training sessions to suit what he expects from Nigeria‚ his players working in confined spaces (Nigeria are sure to try to pressurise and steamroll Bafana)‚ and releasing the ball quickly on the counter-attack. There have been plan Bs too. Gameplans worked on in training - tick.
- Baxter called Bidvest Wits' PSL-winning coach Gavin Hunt‚ overlooked for the Bafana job‚ to ask for advice on his squad selection. Calling PSL coaches for advice‚ and making sure they are onside - tick.
- The coach revealed on Friday morning to the travelling media that he SMSed Tokelo Rantie - the two-goal tormentor of Nigeria in a 2-2 Afcon 2015 qualifying draw in Uyo in 2014 - to encourage him on his recent form for Genclerbirligi in Turkey. That must be worth another communication tick.
All of which might count for nothing on Saturday.
There are always teething problems in first matches for national coaches. This is football. It's unpredictable by nature.
Covering bases does not always guarantee a result.
It was put to Baxter that‚ as much as he's ticked the boxes‚ if it goes wrong through teething problems‚ or Nigeria simply being good‚ or SA not quite good‚ the social media backlash is almost sure to be: 'Shakes never spoke well‚ but got the results - Baxter speaks beautifully‚ but can't.'
“One hundred percent. You (Times Media Digital) carried a story about‚ 'Stuart spoke to Gavin Hunt for an hour'. Even that‚ people will interpret as‚ 'He can't do the job for himself'.
“So why worry. I mean‚ some guy that's just come out of the shebeen‚ and he's writing on twitter about me - why should I worry about that.
“Because‚ the problem is that if you do worry‚ if that becomes an issue for me‚ the only result is that South Africa have a coach who's not doing his job.
“I've got to make sure that I'm ticking the boxes. And if I'm ticking the boxes‚ the chance that we're going to be better‚ both today‚ and going forward‚ is higher.
“And if we hit the post‚ or if the Nigerian goalkeeper comes out and misses the ball and punches the centre-forward‚ and we get a penalty and win 1-0‚ am I a great coach because of that?
“No. And I've got to realise that. And the same if it happens the other way. If I've not done anything wrong and we lose‚ and then I shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.
“But yes‚ that is the life of a coach. Unfortunately.
“But I will always say‚ ask the players. Ask them if they feel we prepared well and have done everything we can.”
Baxter said if there are teething problems‚ he has tried to prepare Bafana for lasting to half time on braveness and thinking on their feet.
“Despite what people think‚ you can do little from the bench. If you're lucky you can catch and change one thing‚" the coach said.
“Half time is an opportunity. And then‚ to keep pushing that in the second half.
“We've spoken about being brave. And being brave does not just mean throw your body in front of a shot. It means being brave - get on the ball and play.
“Being brave means don't back off if we're leading in the last 10 minutes. Don't sit there waiting for them on the edge of the area. Make sure we squeeze them properly‚ make sure we get to the ball.
“And part of 'be brave' is also about if it doesn't go exactly as we wanted. Do we panic? Do we start thinking‚ 'Ooh‚ they're better than we thought'.
“That's where you react and adapt. And I'm trying to talk to the players in a way that will empower them to react and adapt.
“I don't want us to feel inferior. If they go a goal up‚ we play. If we go a goal up‚ we play. Both of those situations can put you on the back foot.
“We go a goal up‚ you can imagine it's‚ 'Ooh‚ let's hang onto this'. But I don't want them to do that. I want them to be brave and play the game properly and adapt. Try to impose ourselves on Nigeria at the right time.”
Saturday is the start of yet another new era‚ under yet another new Bafana coach. One certainly cannot fault Baxter for the effort he's made preparing SA for it.
One cannot doubt the coach‚ too‚ has some steely resolve; some‚ perhaps even‚ touch of madness‚ giving up a comfortable club contract at SuperSport United to return to a Bafana job he left under such a depressing‚ torrid cloud in his previous stint in 2004 to 2005.
He'll be hoping this term starts with a pressure-relieving draw‚ or even a famous win.
If not‚ perhaps the man stumbling out of the shebeen will cut the coach some slack for the effort he's shown‚ and the bravery. He seems to deserve it.
- TMG Digital/TMG Sport