Khune injury likely a fatal blow to Bafana's hopes
If South Africa's task to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup was extremely difficult before, it is now bordering on 'mission impossible' with news that Itumeleng Khune is out injured.
The Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper fractured an eye socket with just seconds remaining in his side's 1-0 Telkom Knockout victory over Chippa United on Sunday, an injury that will likely have huge ramifications for the country.
Bafana Bafana were always underdogs in their twin ties against Senegal -- the first at home on Friday before a return in Dakar next Tuesday.
But very few South Africans will now give the team any chance at all after the loss to Khune, who so often has stood between victory and defeat in the past.
His is comfortably the country's most accomplished keeper with over 80 caps. He is also a leader at the back in a team that has looked rudderless without him in the recent past, and his organisational skills and ability to communicate will be sorely missed.
And then there is his world-class distribution, so often a weapon for Bafana in which he can turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye with his accurate 70-yard-plus passes.
That would have been a key gameplan for Baxter, to use the side's pacy and skilful midfielders to get behind the at times lumbering Senegalese defence, with Khune providing the ammunition. Baxter will now have to call up a replacement, and it must surely be Bidvest Wits keeper Darren Keet.
The other two glovemen in the squad to do not inspire confidence.
SuperSport United's Ronwen Williams has shown excellent form at club level and in African club competition, but seemingly struggles as soon as he puts on a national team jersey, with a number of blunders in his five matches so far.
Wayne Sandilands has more experience but is also prone to errors and not as good a shot-stopper as either Khune, Williams or Keet.
Both Williams and Sandilands were used in Bafana's disastrous twin 2-1 losses to Cape Verde in September and neither shone, to say the least.
In what is likely to be a pressure-cooker environment -- especially in Dakar -- and up against world-class players, Khune's all-round contribution will be sorely missed and could be the difference between success and failure.
Baxter will be hoping for no other injury scares and will have been buoyed by the return from the sidelines of Lebo Manyama for his Turkish side Konyaspor at the weekend.
Centre-back Thulani Hlatshwayo, who is likely to skipper the side in Khune's absence, is also back after a lay-off.
South Africa's need to win both matches to reach Russia next year, meaning Baxter will have to be positive in his team selection, without being reckless.
He will also have to find a replacement for the suspended Bongani Zungu in the holding midfield role for the home clash, with Mamelodi Sundowns' Hlompho Kekana a strong option.
One or both of Clayton Daniels and Morgan Gould will likely drop out from the centre-back positions, with Hlatshwayo fit again and Kaizer Chiefs' Erick Mathoho back from suspension.
It will also be interesting to see if Baxter continues with the skilful but diminutive Percy Tau in attack, or picks the more muscular Bradley Grobler or Dino Ndlovu, both of who are in decent form.
Another form player is Thulani Serero, who could come in for Sibusiso Vilakazi.