With Nigeria’s berth at next year’s Afcon tournament secure, South Africa’s destiny remains firmly in their own hands if they want to join the Super Eagles at the competition in Cameroon next year.
The Super Eagles went into yesterday’s qualifier needing just a point, and Bafana must now draw their final match against Libya in March to advance.
A defeat will mean the end of the road for coach Stuart Baxter’s side, who were held to a goalless draw by the same opponents in Durban in September.
The Libyans picked up maximum points in their 8-1 bashing of the Seychelles in an early kick-off in the group yesterday to keep their dream alive.
Although entertaining and tense, yesterday’s encounter between Nigeria and South Africa was not any closer to their meeting in the first leg, when Bafana won 2-0 in Uyo 18 months ago.
The Super Eagles rose like a phoenix since that setback to set a demolition trail that saw them scoring 10 goals, of which six were away from home, before yesterday’s game.
The west African giants were favourites heading into the battle against a South African side that had only beaten them twice in eight official outings.
Nigeria always looked dangerous with their forays and they were the most likely to find the breakthrough, which came nine minutes into the game when Bafana defender Buhle Mkhwanazi deflected Kalu Ojim’s cross past keeper Itumeleng Khune.
Prior to this, the visitors’ captain, Ahmed Musa, had tested Khune with a snap volley, but Bafana heeded the warning almost immediately with an attack of their own for South Africa’s first real threat in the game.
However, some sloppiness by the home side allowed Nigeria to exert pressure during the crucial phases of the game, so much that the visitors came close to extending their lead – first Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho stumbled with a goal beckoning late in the first half and then Kenneth
Omeruo’s header went inches wide deep into the second stanza.
Despite a jittery start, Bafana soon found their rhythm, with some threatening moves from Themba Zwane and Percy Tau that reminded the decent home crowd of the chemistry they had during their time together at Mamelodi Sundowns.
The hosts almost evened the score in the 18th minute, but Mothiba could not get to the end of Tau’s cross.
The French-based Mothiba made amends seven minutes later when he rounded off a brilliant move initiated by Tau to net his second goal of the qualifiers.
Zwane’s hard work and persistence outshone the return to the team of Thulani Serero, who did not make much of an impact on the day.
The Holland-based midfielder was later replaced by in-from attacker Thembinkosi Lorch on the hour mark.
Despite injecting fresh energy into the right wing, the Orlando Pirates midfielder lost possession late in the game, almost handing Nigeria a late goal, but Success Isaac’s effort was correctly flagged for offside.
Lorch was one of the newcomers in the Bafana midfield, which lost regulars Kamohelo Mokotjo, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Keagan Dolly and Dean Furman to injuries.
Baxter started with a new-look midfield that had the Sundowns duo of Hlompho Kekana and Tiyani Mabunda in the belly of the park, with Serero and Zwane on the wings.
Cape Town City full-back Thamsanqa Mkhize also started ahead of Kaizer Chiefs’ Ramahlwe Mphahlele at right-back.
Nigeria, on the other hand, were without lethal striker Odion Ighalo, but a point was all they needed to join Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia and Madagascar as those who have already sealed their berths in next year’s continental showpiece.
Now Bafana must do the business against Libya because a loss will make Baxter look back and rue the goalless draw against the Seychelles away last month.
The 12 group winners and runners-up will qualify for the final tournament that begins in June.
As hosts, Cameroon have automatically qualified irrespective of where they finish in Group B.