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Baxter needs a lineup with flair‚ or his future might be doomed

07 October 2017 - 12:22 By Marc Strydom
Stuart Baxter during the South African national mens soccer team press conference at Southern Sun Montecasino on October 02, 2017 in Johannesburg.
Stuart Baxter during the South African national mens soccer team press conference at Southern Sun Montecasino on October 02, 2017 in Johannesburg.
Image: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

Stuart Baxter looked positively glum in his pre-match press conference on Friday for Saturday’s must-win 2018 World Cup qualifier against Burkina Faso at FNB Stadium.

Out on the pitch‚ so did his Bafana Bafana players. If a married couple had looked so despondent‚ so disconnected from one another‚ you would have asked yourself if there were problems at home.

In a week where Burkina Faso have arrived top of the group and skipping on air at the prospect of that country’s potential first World Cup‚ the light determination of their training sessions at Ellis Park have appeared to stand in stark contrast to a solemn atmosphere for Bafana at FNB Stadium.

Add absentees in defence‚ and SA coming off defeats against Cape Verde where the performances were poor‚ largely – especially in the home match in Durban – because coach Baxter picked a far too static lineup‚ and it all looks a little unpromising.

This match might be the big test of whether Baxter can continue past these Russia 2018 qualifiers regardless of whether his team qualify.

There have been so many question marks that have emerged since that first‚ inspired victory against Nigeria in June.

The selection of so many SuperSport United players. Has it caused rifts?

The reluctant‚ finicky attitude to the Cosafa Cup and Chan so early in a coach’s job‚ when Baxter should have been relishing any work.

The lack of sensitivity to public sentiment roping in Quinton Fortune as an assistant.

The slide has been alarmingly quick.

And then‚ at the first hint of pressure in a game where it all went wrong against Cape Verde in Praia‚ a withdrawal into a conservative shell of the kind of static football Baxter can be criticised for‚ but that is not necessarily even what he should be known for. His football‚ when it is good‚ is so much better than that.

If Baxter wants to rescue the situation he needs to show an ability to fight – and not just for himself‚ but for the country.

The coach‚ by his nature‚ seems likely to persist with a static line-up on Saturday afternoon. If he does‚ that will be a mistake.

To win back South Africans‚ Baxter has to show he is willing to risk. He has to convince them he understands the fundamentals of South African football – speed‚ skill‚ creativity and freedom of expression bring the best out of South African players.

Baxter’s predecessor‚ Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba‚ for all his flaws and anger issues off the field‚ had those fundamentals pulsing through his veins.

Even when he was fired by Safa‚ it was as a result of the powder keg that Mashaba was waiting to explode more than his results – his draw against Burkina Faso and win against Senegal in these qualifiers had set Bafana up to qualify.

Who Baxter picks on Saturday is not so much the issue. What is‚ is that whoever they are – Hlompo Kekana‚ Andile Jali‚ Thulani Serero‚ Percy Tau and Lebogang Manyama spring to mind – they have the attributes to overwhelm Burkina with South African-styled‚ skills-based football.

Baxter is playing for his future‚ Bafana for that outside shot at the World Cup that should not be given up on until it’s genuinely over.

No-one said this Bafana thing would ever be short on drama.