South Africa did better than the draw they needed against Libya to book their place at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals as they recorded a 2-1 win at the Stade Taieb Mhiri on Sunday night, courtesy of two sensational goals from Percy Tau.
After the visiting team had been under the cosh for nearly the entire first half, Tau stunned Libya with a 49th minute strike and then grabbed the winner in the 68th minute, three minutes after Ahmad Ben Ali had equalised with a penalty.
In tough inhospitable conditions away from home against a physical and fired up Libya, Bafana survived some questionable match officiating and had to avoid missiles thrown onto the pitch by spectators throughout the second half, and can take great credit for what was a gutsy, accomplished performance, and a deserved victory.
There was a bit of surprise to the Bafana line-up as head coach Steuart Baxter named both Sifiso Hlanti and Innocent Maela – two left backs by trade, in his starting XI.
The idea was that Hlanti would join Buhle Mkhwanazi and Thulani Hlatshwayo in a back three, with Maela and Thamsanqa Mkhize employed as wing-backs.
When the do-or-die encounter started – in front of a packed stadium of around 25 000 people, many of whom had seemingly driven up the coast from Libya to Tunisia to support their team, it was the north African side who made all the early running, putting South Africa under pressure with some incisive, high-tempo football.
When Bafana did get the ball, the Mediterranean Knights swarmed all over them and quickly turned over possession, and it took some very determined defending, including a couple of important blocks and interceptions to keep the Libyans’ chances to a minimum.
Even so, Bafana goalkeeper Darren Keet was a busy man, dealing well with crosses into the box and pulling off a couple of decent saves as well.
Things did improve for the 1996 Afcon champions in the minutes leading up to the break and some neat interplay in the 40th minute ended with Themba Zwane’s shot being turned around the post.
There was also an opening for Lebo Mothiba, but he volleyed a sharp chance over the bar, before Keet made a fine save just before the interval to prevent Ali’s rasping drive from finding the net.
Baxter’s half-time instructions must surely have been something along the lines of, “let’s take the game to the opponent, take the pressure off ourselves, give their defence something to think about”.
That was certainly the impression the Bafana players gave as they looked a whole lot more decisive and positive after the restart. And after just four second half minutes, they had their reward as Mothiba laid the ball off for Tau just outside the box, where the former Mamelodi Sundowns man was given enough time to steady himself before smashing a superb shot into the top corner.
Naturally that provoked a response from the Mediterranean Knights, and Bafana were again indebted to Keet when he reacted extremely well to keep out a stinging volley from a tight angle by Anis Saltou.
It was Saltou who was inadvertently to get the north Africans back in the game, when in chasing down a cross into the box, he was brushed in the face by the boot of Keet as the goalkeeper went up to make what appeared a routine catch.
It was a somewhat debatable decision to award a spot kick, but Ali didn’t care as he stepped up to slam the ball past Keet to restore parity on 64 minutes.
It didn’t seem to be going South Africa’s way when a couple of minutes later, they were denied a goal even though the ball had looked to have been forced over the line following a goalmouth scramble.
However, they refused to let the setbacks get to them and moments later Bafana scored what turned out to be the winner when after a cleverly-worked short corner, Tau curled in a sensational finish with his weaker right foot from a very tight angle.
Libya came back looking to equalise again, but the team from down south matched them blow for blow with some committed defending, with Keet there to mop up when a couple of shots inevitably came in.
In the end though they were able to see out the game without too much issue and Tau could even have notched his hattrick had he not shot wide from a great position in the 88th minute.