Bafana Bafana face balancing act for Paraguay test
Injury-hit South Africa go into Tuesday's international friendly against Paraguay in Durban facing a difficult balancing act as they seek to keep up the momentum built over the last few months.
Saturday's 1-1 home draw with Nigeria was a mixed bag; at times they controlled the game masterfully and looked more polished than their visitors, but it is also fair to say they got lucky with at least two wrong offside calls when the Super Eagles had the ball in the back of the net.
It has left their Nations Cup qualification in the balance and they now face a tough away trip to North Africa to meet Libya in March, needing to avoid defeat to secure their place in Cameroon next June-July.
The Libyans will certainly be confident of gaining the win, as they probably should have done in the 0-0 draw in South Africa in September, and will throw everything they have at Bafana Bafana.
As things stand, Tuesday's home clash with Paraguay will be their final fixture before that assignment in four months' time, but in truth there is not much for coach Stuart Baxter to gain from the game.
Dean Furman, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Bongani Zungu and Keagan Dolly are all missing from his side but should be back in time to face the Libyans, with all possibly starting if they can prove form and fitness.
That means, defence apart, Baxter will field a shadow team against the Paraguayans and must also limit the game-time for his top players to keep their clubs on his side ahead of important weekend fixtures.
This could be crucial as, should Bafana Bafana qualify for the Nations Cup, then next year's COSAFA Cup, slated for the weeks leading up to the finals, will form vital preparation.
That tournament falls outside of the FIFA window though and Baxter will be reliant on teams releasing their players, even though the domestic season will be over.
So does he play Lebo Mothiba and Percy Tau up front again on Tuesday? Should he give another 90 minutes to his three Bidvest Wits defenders ahead of their vital Telkom Knockout semifinal against Baroka FC on Sunday?
Will he play any Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates ahead of their Telkom semi in Durban on Saturday, a game that both teams will be desperate to win to give them a chance of ending their barren trophy run of recent years?
And if he does play the likes of Ramahlwe Mphahlele, Itumeleng Khune, Innocent Maela, Vincent Pule or Thembinkosi Lorch, how much will they give him knowing they have a massive clash at the weekend?
The alternative is to push in players such as Siyanda Xulu, Motjeka Madisha, Teboho Mokoena and Fortune Makaringe for what would be a second-string selection against a very good Paraguay side that are looking to overcome a difficult 2018 so far.
It would risk a heavy defeat that, given the fickle nature of the South African footballing public, would add to the pressure already weighing down on Baxter. It is that balancing act that the coach needs to overcome in the build-up to the game, which also comes just three days after their energy-sapping effort against Nigeria in the heat and altitude of Johannesburg.
The team is also defending an unbeaten record in 2018, with their nine matches to date in all competitions resulting in four wins and five draws.
What Baxter has managed to do is make the team difficult to beat and just three goals conceded in those nine fixtures, to go with 17 scored, shows the organisation and work ethic that has been cultivated.
It is that reason why it would be folly to sack the coach at this stage. He has taken the team this far and deserves the opportunity to see if he can seal qualification for the Nations Cup finals.
Paraguay is a final building block in that regard, and will provide a stern test for whatever team Baxter puts out on Tuesday.
What fans will want to see is a good performance, whatever the result, and evidence of the further progress of the side.