Bafana Bafana are out of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) after putting on a battling display in Wednesday night’s 2-1 quarterfinal defeat to Nigeria at Cairo International Stadium.
Samuel Chukwueze slotted Nigeria ahead in the 26th minute, while Bongani Zungu’s 71st-minute VAR-assisted header pulled the tenacious South Africans back. William Troost-Ekong scored for Nigeria from sloppy defending at a corner in the 88th.
Bafana have a magnificent, almost inexplicable, 1-0 shock victory over Egypt as their last-16 memory of Afcon 2019.
For the rest, they were beautifully structured but unfathomably seemed to hold something back — including in Wednesday night’s performance — in an attack that could have produced so much more had runners such as Percy Tau and Thembinkosi Lorch been set free more, as they were against the Pharaohs.
He retained the 4-3-3 formation and seemed set to employ the high press, perhaps tweaked for a different style of opponent, that was so effective against the hosts.
Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr brought 20-year-old Villareal winger Chukwueze into the dangerous frontline of Ahmed Musa, Alex Iwobi and tournament joint-top scorer Odion Ighalo, who were responsible for their team’s comeback from 2-1 in Nigeria’s 3-2 last-16 win against Cameroon.
Baxter did not so much tweak his high press, as abandoned it. Bafana sat deeper, but came out confident on the ball, having strong possession in the opening 15 minutes.
The Super Eagles, wary of the threat of SA, had a plan to use their explosiveness and earn an advantage.
Gradually they muscled the South Africans out physically, in the fashion they know is so effective against Bafana.
The pace and power of Iwobi and Ahmed in particular started to pry half-openings. Then Iwobi erupted with a turn and pace to beat Thamsanqa Mkhize down the left and squared to the centre where Chukwueze was waiting.
The winger’s first touch was onto Thulani Hlatshwayo, and the rebound fell to his feet, making it easy to slot low past Ronwen Williams.
SA worked back some form of momentum by the end of the half, but the game looked like a familiar script for the Super Eagles.
Things started the same way in the second half. Midfielder Peter Etebo’s swerving free-kick was palmed by Williams onto his crossbar.
And yet, structured, tenacious SA looked like they could sneak something. Then Zungu produced a looping header over goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi from a Tau free-kick that appeared to have been flicked on by Hlatshwayo, but seemed offside.
However, the VAR replay showed the ball came off Ighalo’s back, so Zungu’s goal stood.
SA appeared headed for extra time when their strongest area of the tournament let them down.
Williams came off his line and missed a corner by substitute Moses Simon, and Ekong was left alone to volley in.