When Bafana Bafana found out that they had qualified for the knockout round of the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations, joy may quickly have become sheer trepidation.
While Egypt has always been a force to be reckoned with on the African continent, this time around they have an additional weapon and his name is Mohamed Salah, assuming the forward recovers from a cold in time to take to the field on Saturday.
The Liverpool star is undoubtedly the face of Egyptian football, and an icon of the world sport in general, so it’s understandable that the fate of the home nation’s Afcon success rests firmly on his shoulders.
After recently winning the Champions League, conquering the continent could be the proverbial cherry on top of the cake for what has been another scintillating season for the 27-year-old.
While for Egypt, Salah’s presence brings about a sense of peace, for Bafana coach Stuart Baxter and his technical team, it may well be giving them sleepless nights as they attempt to stop the attacker – something many coaches have tried but failed to do.
During the group stages, Salah exuded quality and creativity, and has already registered two goals in three games.
This should be enough for any coach to plan specifically for the Salah threat.
Heading into the match, Baxter has been criticised for his side’s pragmatic approach; they’ve scored just once – against Namibia – and didn’t register a shot on target against either the Ivory Coast or Morocco.
This begs the question of whether or not Bafana can do better against Egypt, especially as they come up against a side who will have a capacity crowd cheering them on at the Cairo International Stadium.
Nonetheless, Bafana Bafana needs to be energetic and confident upfront, but at the same time keep things tight at the back.
Baxter could have a major selection dilemma, especially at full-back, and it’s a decision that might be critical to Bafana’s chances of success.
Left-back Sifiso Hlanti has been less than convincing during the tournament and has come under fire from his critics, although Baxter showed continued faith in him. However, playing against Salah represents a completely different challenge for the Bidvest Wits man.
If Hlanti is given the go-ahead, this is potentially a game which could make or break his career.
Salah has previously torn through many defenders better than Hlanti, but the task is not impossible for the 29-year-old.
In the opening game of the competition, Zimbabwe’s Divine Lunga showed that Salah can be stopped, but it takes hard work, concentration, intelligence…and big-game composure.
Hlanti needs to up his game tenfold, and the key is not to give Salah the space he craves and keep him from coming inside.
Bafana need to keep things tight and also learn from their opponents’ mistakes. While Salah may be key to Egypt on Saturday, Hlanti is just as important a figure for Bafana.
However, the scary part is that while taming Salah should be an integral part of Bafana’s game plan, the southern Africans still need to be wary of Egypt’s other threats; Baxter really has his work cut out for him.