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Clever Ivorians put one over on Bafana Bafana to hand South Africa their first Afcon defeat

BAGGED IT: Jonathan Kodjia (right) of Ivory Coast scores during the 2019 Afcon Group D match against South Africa at the Al Salaam Stadium in Cairo yesterday. Picture: EPA / Gavin Barker

Al Salam Stadium, Egypt

Ivory Coast 1

Kodjia 63

South Africa 0

BAFANA Bafana started their Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) campaign with a defeat at the hands of an average-looking but smart Ivory Coast side.

Just like most of the opening games of this tournament, this was a cagey affair with the two teams sizing each other and no one wanting to blink first. Bafana blinked for a moment and the Ivoirians punished them.

Ronwen Williams, a surprise inclusion in the starting XI, started the encounter with a small prayer at one of the posts. The SuperSport United keeper was picked ahead of Darren Keet who pulled off some brilliant saves against Libya in a match that earned Bafana the ticket to be here.

The talented shot-stopper that is Williams has had a turbulent relationship with the Bafana No 1 jersey. He has looked nervous which led to him producing some embarrassing performances and stunting his growth in the national team.

But this season he has looked confident and assured, showing that he is now mature enough to handle this big responsibility.

Point-blank save

Just after the halfway mark, Williams showed how confident he is with a point-blank save to deny Jonathan Kodjia. The Ivoirian forward broke free and stole a careless back-pass from Thulani Hlatshwayo to go one-on-one with Williams who stood firm in the face of danger and produced a brilliant save from a powerful shot.

Williams also tipped over a well-taken free-kick by Nicolas Pepe.

The pace of the match started slowly, as expected with conditions at almost 40 degrees. The Elephants seemed to purposely slow down the match, looking pedestrian in their build-up only to burst with energy in the final third and then return to conserving their energy.

The Elephants and Bafana had an advantage in that they had seen Morocco, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda struggle with the heat in the first half. Luckily here, sanity prevailed, and referee Mustapha Ghorbal allowed for a water break – unlike what happened when the Atlas Lions beat the Brave Warriors, much to the frustration of Herve Renard.

The match livened up in the second half with the temperatures dropping. The Elephants played with more speed and urgency.

Kodjia would have the last laugh in his duel with Williams as he made no mistake in his second confrontation with Williams. Max Gradel put the ball on the silver platter for Kodjia who gave his country the lead. The sprinkling of orange in the stands found their voices – including the stiffs sitting in the VIP section.

The Ivoirians showed their intentions when they brought in Wilfried Zaha just after scoring.

In these blistering hot conditions, the bench was going to play a key role as fresh and energetic legs would change the game as the players, especially the defenders, got tired towards the end of the match.

Bafana failed to take the initiative, looking to hit Ivory Coast on a counter-attack – a conservative approach from a team that has a talented attacking force.

The Elephants’ defence looked rattled and leaky. They struggled to deal with Bafana’s set-pieces. Instead of pressing them hard with their dangerous set-pieces, Bafana allowed Ivory Coast room to breathe – a criminal offence at this level of football.

So now Bafana have to dust themselves off and correct their mistakes against their neighbours, Namibia, who are spoiling for a fight against their Southern African big brothers on Friday.