Egypt were left stunned as Thembinkosi Lorch’s late strike silenced the home fans to send South Africa to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals.
A daunting task awaited Bafana Bafana on Saturday night as they took to the field in front of a packed Cairo International Stadium.
Coming up against the hosts Egypt in the Round of 16, Bafana were clear underdogs on paper, having snuck into the knockout rounds as one of the four best third-placed teams, while the Pharaohs were among the tournament favourites – boasting a 100% win record thus far in the competition.
Their chances were given an even further boost with the news that talisman Mohamed Salah had shrugged off illness ahead of kick-off and was raring to go.
This would have instilled fear into Bafana coach Stuart Baxter as he made two changes, bringing in Dean Furman, who returned from injury and 2018/19 Premier Soccer League (PSL) Footballer of the Year Lorch, who made his first appearance at the continental showpiece and was set for a night to remember.
Lorch’s introduction instilled new life into a Bafana attack, which failed to register a single shot on target in two of their group games and scored just one goal, but Salah’s threat was an ever-present headache for his opponents.
The 27-year-old perhaps should have done better with his first effort, as he lashed the ball wide from inside the Bafana box, giving an early warning to the opposition for what was potentially to come.
The clash was the third meeting between the two sides at an Afcon, and Bafana were determined to get their very first win over the African giants. Percy Tau, who has had a rather quiet tournament despite being the top scorer in qualifying, looked a real threat as he stung the palms of Mohamed El-Shenawy early on. Tau was putting on a scintillating display and kept the Egypt keeper busy as he then had a curling freekick brilliantly saved with just over 20 minutes played.
Bafana head coach Stuart Baxter undoubtedly tinkered with his game plan as Bafana were a lot more positive. However, throwing bodies upfront meant they were always exposed to the break and had Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan made better contact with his strike following a quick counter-attack, the scoreline could have been different.
It was a lively first-half with Bafana arguably looking the better of the two teams, but Egypt showed just why they were yet to be breached in this year’s tournament as they were resolute at the back and kept the 1996 champions at bay.
On their return for the second half, the Egyptian technical team were the first to react as Marwan Mohsen was withdrawn for Ahmed Ali in an attempt to up the ante in search of the opener.
Egypt looked a lot more determined in the opening minutes of the second-half as Mohamed Elneny rifled a shot just over Ronwen Williams’ goal. Meanwhile, the partnership of Salah and Trezeguet was keeping Bafana on their toes, but the latter was lacking the end product and just before the hour mark, he squandered another opportunity.
After being played through on goal thanks to a phenomenal defense-splitting pass by Salah, the 24-year-old sent his tame effort into the grateful arms of Williams.
With the game headed into its final quarter, Egypt was yet to find the back of the net and frustration slowly begin to creep into their game as the pressure mounted. Bafana’s best chance of the half came with 20 minutes to go when Thulani Hlatshwayo rose highest, but he could not direct his header on target, to the relief of the capacity crowd in attendance.
Bafana was growing in confidence once again and was producing exciting football with Lorch coming more into the game, although he would squander a golden opportunity to find the back of the net.