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South Africa close in on their dream


That combination is formidable and was clearly missed in their opening match.

Having taken a giant step towards qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the South Africa Under-23 team will be hoping to book their spot in the 2019 CAF eight-nation tournament semi-finals in style when they clash with Nigeria in the last round of Group B this evening.

Coach David Notoane’s men are at the summit of their group with four points, thanks to a win over Ivory Coast and a draw with neighbours Zambia.

They will, however, face their biggest assignment yet when they clash with Nigeria, who are defending champions, at Al-Salam Stadium in Cairo tonight (8pm kick-off).

What makes this encounter a potentially fiery clash is that the Nigerians are also in need of full points, especially having only bagged a win against Zambia in their second game of the tournament after losing their opener to the Ivorians, who later succumbed to a 1-0 loss to South Africa.

Sure, the South Africans may not have been outright favourites to win this continental showpiece but if their midweek clash against the Young Elephants is anything to go by, then Notoane and his troops could dare to dream that they can achieve the improbable.

South Africa need a top-three finish in order to qualify for the World Event in Japan, but with Notoane having his full squad in Egypt, there’s a pretty reasonable chance that they could very well exceed expectations.

The availability of SuperSport United duo Sipho Mbule and Teboho Mokoena proved to be invaluable on Tuesday, the latter having struck a delightful set-piece goal that put the team in pole position in their group.

The absence of Mbule and Mokoena in the first game against Zambia, after SuperSport refused to release them when the team assembled in camp a fortnight ago as the tournament commenced outside the designated Fifa break, cost the team dearly.

These are two individuals who’ve been the backbone of Matsantsantsa a Pitori, who are the MTN8 Champions and third on the Premier Soccer League log standings after bagging 17 points in their 11 matches in the Premiership.

That combination is formidable and was clearly missed in their opening match.

Nonetheless, Notoane remains confident that he has assembled a relatively talented group of players, especially after Kamohelo Mahlatsi walked away with the Man of the Match accolade following his impressive performance for his team during that goalless draw with Zambia in their opener.

It is, however, not Mahlatsi nor Mbule or Mokoena who have grabbed the opportunity to represent their country in a major tournament by the scruff of the neck, as Darren Johnson, the Ajax Cape Town goalkeeper, has been impressive between the sticks after keeping a clean sheet in both matches.

And with Banyana Banyana – the SA national women’s team – having failed to book their ticket to next year’s Olympics after surprisingly succumbing to Botswana in their own qualifiers in September, captain Tercious Malepe and his Under-23 compatriots would feel as though they’ve let the country down if they were to drop the ball at this stage of the tournament.

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