Durban - When Shakes Mashaba rests his head on his hotel-room pillow on Saturday night, he will do so with the knowledge that he has come through his most challenging assignment in his second stint as national coach to date.
On the verge of qualifying for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, where South Africa’s fate lies firmly in their own hands, Mashaba leads his Bafana Bafana troops into Saturday’s meeting with Sudan having had to make a number of tough choices and changes to his line-up.
The glaring omission of Senzo Meyiwa will feature prominently at Moses Mabhida ahead of their 3pm kick-off, a change which is one of two forced by circumstances beyond Mashaba’s control.
South Africa will play their first game since the former national captain’s death on October 26, when he was shot dead in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, while visiting his singer girlfriend Kelly Khumalo.
“These kind of things have a very serious impact on the psychological side of people,” Mashaba said of Meyiwa's untimely death.
Not only will the coach have to replace his goalkeeper -- one of the most difficult positions on a football field -- he will also have to replace his captain, who had come through four Afcon qualifiers with flying colours, leading the national team with aplomb.
“Choosing a captain is not about playing. What we look for more is how he can bring the team together when we are in camp."
Brilliant Khuzwayo and Siyabonga Mpontshane were brought in to prop up the goalkeeping department and will join Darren Keet who has been part of every Mashaba-selected squad so far.
If the coach's final training sessions are anything to go by, Keet looks favourite to don the gloves this weekend against the team Bafana thrashed 3-0 in Khartoum in September, getting their qualification campaign off to the perfect start.
The former Wits shot-stopper has bided his time for several years in the national team, having played second-fiddle to Itumeleng Khune and Meyiwa.
Keet has been on the bench in each of the four qualifiers to date and knows Mashaba’s system.
Further favouring the Belgian-based keeper’s fortunes is his solid form for club side KV Kortrijk. Keet has kept five clean-sheets this season and would head into Saturday’s fixture having not leaked a goal in consecutive outings.
The other forced change to Bafana’s line-up looks more straightforward. Thulani Hlatshwayo, who has played each qualifier so far, is suspended for picking up two yellow cards.
Anele Ngcongca would be the obvious choice to replace Hlatshwayo at right-back.
Ngcongca remains one of the country’s top defensive components, thanks to the experience he has gained while playing for top Belgian club KRC Genk since 2007.
He was part of Mashaba’s victorious starting XI in Khartoum, but played in the centre of defence. On Saturday, Ngcongca looks set to be asked to revert back to his more familiar role on the right, with Rivaldo Coetzee in the heart of the back row.
Ngcongca and Coetzee will have to face a Sudan outfit with nothing to lose, one which finds itself at the bottom of the group and in desperate need of a win to stand any chance of qualifying for next year’s tournament -- which is currently without a host.
“There’s a lot at stake. We’ve beaten Sudan in their own backyard, I’m sure they’ll want to come and reverse the situation. That alone makes the game more difficult,” Mashaba said.
But Saturday’s game, which was moved from Nelspruit to Durban in Meyiwa's honour, provides Bafana with an opportunity to wrap up qualification before they play their last game in Nigeria on Wednesday.
“Playing at home is pressure on its own. It's big pressure for our players now because they themselves are worried that we can’t let our fans down.
“The fans, on the other hand, they want the team to win at all costs. There’s no time where we can say to the players: ‘make the best out of it and enjoy'.
“It’s worse now. It’s in our hands.”