The South African Men’s under-23 National Team go into their final match of the group stages well aware of what is needed for the team to proceed to the semi-finals of the CAF under-23 Africa Cup of Nations. South Africa defeated Zambia 3-2 while Senegal beat Tunisia 2-0 in the other Group A match – both were played on Tuesday, 1 December at the Léopold Senghor Stadium in Dakar. The result leaves the hosts top of the group on six points, three more than second placed South Africa and third-placed Tunisia.
Zambia is bottom of the table with no points after two losses in the tournament and have no chance of making it to the last four. Senegal has qualified for the next round while the battle for the other spot is between South Africa and Tunisia who clash on Friday, 4 December at the Caroline Faye Stadium in Mbour. Senegal will play Zambia.
Kick off is at 17:00 South African time (15:00 local time).
The winner between South Africa and Tunisia will join the hosts in the last four, while a draw will see South Africa go through. Both are nations are sitting on three points each with a goal difference of -1, but South Africa has scored more goals. Tunisia won 2-1 in the first match, while South Africa lost 3-1.
South Africa has conceded five goals so far and scored four, Tunisia have conceded three but scored two goals. SAFA MEDIA sat down with Owen Da Gama after the win against Zambia to gather his thoughts.
Matlhomola Morake: Great result against Zambia?
Owen Da Gama: It was very important that we get over our first game, which was always going to be very difficult playing against the hosts who have a quality team. Once we were done with that match we started to have a greater understanding of what was needed. Another important factor is that we have won six of our last seven matches and perhaps the players were a little overconfident and complacent, and maybe it was a blessing in disguise that we lost because in the tournament it is not how you start but how you finish. Ideally, it is good to start strong and finish stronger, sometimes teams get better as the tournament progresses and peak at the right time, so we still haven’t reached our potential. Yes, we have scored three goals today, but we still haven’t played the way we know how to play. Hopefully the next game will be a little bit better.
MM: You made six changes against Zambia and you got the desired results
ODG: The entire technical team sat down and looked at the situation – I think we were a little bit overcautious initially by playing with a flat back four with fullbacks (Rikhotso and Farmer) that don’t push up and that took a lot of energy out of our wingers, and it limited their ability to penetrate – but we rectified that against Zambia and we got the result with a very good performance from the team.
MM: The presence of Menzi Masuku and Gift Motupa also contributed to a fine win
ODG: It is important that we don’t overstate that because at the end of the day we are not looking for excuses as to why we lost the first game, we had confidence in all the players but you have to understand that Masuku and Motupa are an integral part of this team. When we played a friendly against Tanzania Motupa scored two, against Egypt Masuku scored the winning goal, and also when we beat Sudan Masuku scored the winner. So these are players that score goals for us. They understand how the rest of the team functions and the machinery was just in place against Zambia, and that is why they are so important for the under-23 National Team.
MM: Tunisia up next …
ODG: We will sit down as the technical team and will review their matches in the tournament – against Zambia and Senegal –and dissect them to get a clear understanding of how they play. But at the end of the day, we have to get our team right, and play to our strengths. We are very fortunate that we have played both our games in the tournament at 15:00, they have played both their games in the evening and our final match is in the afternoon, maybe that’s a bit of an advantage to us.
MM: You said the match against Senegal was a must win, the same against Zambia, is the one against Tunisia any different?
ODG: Yes, the first two were a must win, the third one against Tunisia is not a must win, but a must-must win. It’s so important that we win that game, as it will give us more confidence going into the last four. But I am still worried that we are conceding goals (five conceded in two matches). Prior to this competition we did not concede so many goals, so it’s something that is worrying and we need to revisit. Yes, there are individual mistakes that you can’t really do much about, but the tactical mistakes are the ones we need to focus on to make sure we do not concede because we will score against Tunisia. We scored against Senegal but letting in goals is a bit of a problem and something we really need to work on and rectify.
MM: The result between Tunisia and Senegal, what does it mean for us (Senegal won 2-0)?
ODG: It is lovely to be going into the final group stages match and your fate is still in your own hands. Yes, some would have said a draw between Senegal and Tunisia would be better, but I think the win for Senegal makes a strong point that whoever wins between Tunisia and South Africa will go through, no doubt about that, if it remains a draw South Africa will certainly proceed because we have the same goal difference of -1 but we have scored more goals than them. But for us we need to win this game, we have to win this game, we cant go for a draw, and it is crucial that we do not concede, so it is important that we approach it in that regard.
MM: That is a difficult situation you find yourself in – as the technical team you can emphasise a win to the players, but they (players) are also well aware that a draw is enough and then play for it, how do you curb that?
ODG: It’s the age-old saying that if you reach for the moon you might land in the kraal, but if you reach for the stars you will land on the moon, so I believe the further your target is, the further you land. So it is important that the players understand that concept, that they need to always try for the highest possible situation and you might just get close to it. We will make sure they understand exactly the importance of winning this game – for the morale of the team and mainly to ensure that we go to the next round in a strong frame of mind.
MM: What is the plan for the two days before the next match?
ODG: The boys have played two matches in four days so it is important that the recovery is done properly and we make sure they are as fresh as possible for the Friday match. We will be back on the field on Thursday just to feel the ground as we are playing at a different venue but there will be a lot of recovery in between. There is also travelling.
MM: A switch from natural grass to astro turf, will affect the performance of your team?
ODG: We are very fortunate as the under-23 team that we have trained a lot at the Nike Football Centre in Soweto, and in Zimbabwe we played there. So the players are quite used to it, and know what type of equipment to use. We are relatively well versed with the artificial turf, and with our final session before the match being held there it will just be a reminder to the boys of how to adapt. But if truth be told it has never been a challenge to us.
MM: Mobara injury?
ODG: He is not looking good at this stage. But we will allow the medical team to assess him and we take it from there. By the end of today (Wednesday, 2 December) we should have a clearer picture with regard to his groin injury. In the event that he does not make it, it will have created an opportunity for someone to play in his position.
The South African under-23 squad travels to Mbour on Thursday, 3 December.