Can Mahlambi deliver the magic?


But it has subsequently turned out to be a rather clever move. With South Africa needing just a draw to qualify for the semi-finals, the game plan was obvious: keep things tight and then unleash the blinding pace and trickery of Mahlambi in the second half. It worked a charm as the 18-year-old sensation came on to make an immediate impact. Blazing down the right flank, he cut a swathe through the Tunisian defence to produce the cross that allowed Menzi Masuku to net the all-important winning goal.

So, when the SA U23s face Algeria in the semi-finals of this continental Olympic-qualifying tournament in Dakar tonight (kickoff 8.30pm), it’s likely that Da Gama and his technical staff will decide to play things exactly the same way.

Mahlambi will be deployed to the bench and they’ll keep it compact and cohesive. Later, in the second period, when the players are tiring, expect the exciting Mahlambi to be called on to deliver some magic again.

Judging by the words of Da Gama’s assistant coach, Thabo Senong, this certainly looks to be the approach.

“We need to make sure that everything is tight and we have to make sure we don’t give the ball away,” said Senong. “Algeria are a fantastic team who are effective on the break. They are very organised, in that they always have numbers behind the ball.

“The important thing about knock-out football is not to concede a goal. With Algeria being such a disciplined team, it is even more important that we don’t concede.

“With the attacking talent we have in the squad, we will always create scoring opportunities, so (tonight) it’s vital that we don’t let the opponents get ahead.

“We know there’s a lot at stake, but we have made sure that we do not put too much pressure on the squad. Everybody knows what they have to do and what we are aiming for.”

The top three countries at this Eight Nations event qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. If South Africa defeat Algeria tonight, they will not only qualify for the tournament finale, but also secure a place at next year’s sporting extravaganza in Brazil.

If, however, they lose to Algeria, there is another chance to book a seat in Rio, and that’s in the Saturday’s third-place playoff match.

While Mahlambi is likely to be the secret weapon making an impact off the bench, the SA U23s are likely to rely heavily on the influence of Orlando Pirates midfield duo Masuku and Gift Motupa.

The two players were absent for the opening fixture – they were on club duty for Pirates at the Caf Confederations Cup final in Tunisia – and South Africa lost 3-1 to hosts Senegal. Since the arrival of Masuku and Motupa at the tournament, the team has registered a 3-1 win over Zambia and a 1-0 victory against Tunisia, with all the goals – two apiece – coming from the Pirates men.

The Olympic goal is in sight and Masuku, Motupa and Mahlambi have critical roles to fulfil if the dream is to be realised. - Cape Times

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