Very little was expected of World Cup debutantes South Africa, in their opening match against Spain, but they used that to their advantage in Le Havre on Saturday as they made the Spaniards sweat profusely for well over an hour.
Having made history already by qualifying, they sweetened things by scoring their first goal of the showpiece and it was none other than the best player on the African continent, Thembi Kgatlana, who netted a fine chip over the goalkeeper in the 25th minute.
The 23-year old forward’s celebrations told a story of a team that was intent on defying the odds, or at least go down trying, as she cupped her ear as though she was asking the naysayers “you were saying?”.
It all went pear-shaped for Banyana Banyana from the 70th minute though, as they conceded three unanswered goals, two from the penalty spot and one in open play, as well as having Nothando Vilakazi sent off eight minutes from time for a second bookable offense.
It’s those last 20 minutes of the game that swung in Spain’s favour that introduced the South Africans to the brutality of the World Cup, and a lesson they will likely be focusing on is to ensure they don’t find themselves having to learn from it again.
That said, it doesn’t get any easier for coach Desiree Ellis’ charges, with their next assignment being the 1999 finalists China on Thursday. What makes this encounter even worse for the women in green and gold is that the Chinese also collected a loss against title favourites Germany, going down 1-0. They will have their sights set on redemption and will be licking their lips at the thought of taking on the lesser-favoured newcomers.
The two-time hosts were their own worst enemies against the Germans, as they failed to convert the few chances they managed to create, some of them being the best chances of the game. They had five shots at goal and could only get one of them on target.
Another major concern was ill-discipline, as they committed 19 fouls and bagged four yellow cards. It’s an ugly trait that might just rear its head when they face Banyana, who are well-known for their blinding pace when hitting on transition.
Strengths and weaknesses of both sides.
The South Africans will be looking to refine what worked for them in the game against the Spanish as that might be what gives them the edge again: their pace.
Knowing they’re the inferior side against China, they’re expected to be defensive for much of the game while enjoying very little possession, as was the case on Saturday. Their best shot at causing trouble for the Chinese will be to catch them on the counter, which will be where the two attackers, Kgatlana and Ode Futuludilu, are expected to show their prowess.
Futuludilu didn’t enjoy a lot of time on the ball against the Spanish, but her movement into good spaces allowed for Kgatlana to run at their defence and this will be the kind of play Ellis will be hoping for more of. The coach will also be looking at Linda Motlhalo to involve herself more when Banyana are in attack, as she also showed how pivotal she is going forward, having assisted Kgatlana for her goal.
With Vilakazi missing for this game, Ellis will likely bring in the experienced Bambanani Mbane as her replacement, while 20-year-old Bongeka Gamede and 22-year-old Tiisetso Makhubela offer the coach the option of youthful exuberance. There could also be a tweak in midfield for the South Africans with Leandra Smeda perhaps coming in for Kholosa Biyana, who was cautioned in the opener. What isn’t expected to change for the coach is her preferred formation of 4-4-2.
This should also be the case for China, who went with 4-4-2 against Germany. The surprise in that game was Paris Saint-Germain forward Wang Shuang starting the game on the bench, despite being touted as the beacon of hope for the Asians. Bringing his star player into the starting 11 is something coach Jia Xiuquan might want to explore, so as to yield a definite and resounding result.
Attack will certainly be the name of the game, but considering how both China and South Africa produced disappointing possession statistics and found themselves conceding in excess of 15 shots at goal, a solid defence will be crucial, particularly one that is capable of turning pressure into attack.
Goalkeeper Andile Dlamini was one of the most important figures in that Banyana side in the opener as she saved nine of the 12 shots that found their way on target, while captain Janine van Wyk worked overtime sweeping away a plethora of attempts at breaching the back four. Coach Ellis will be hoping for more of that from the two leaders.
For coach Xiuquan, Lin Yuping and Wu Haiyan will have to repeat Saturday’s performance that forced the Germans to find their winning goal from outside the box, through a brilliant volley from Giulia Gwinn. Unlike in that game, they will need to be on high alert when facing the speed with which Banyana come and avoid being forced into detrimental fouls, given that they’re prone to sloppy defending.
It goes without saying that the eight-time Asian champions are the firm favourites to walk away winners in this match. What is unknown is, should they win, how comfortable will it be? The world has now seen that South Africa are more than capable of making life incredibly difficult for the opposition.
The underdog tag with which Ellis and her troops walk around will not keep them from believing they can cause an upset here, if, of course, they can survive another hour of no concession and frustrate the ladies in red.