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Bantwana face their final World Cup hurdle in Morocco

After more than a day’s travel, the Bantwana national U17 women’s side are safely in chilly Rabat, Morocco.

Bantwana are in the country to face the host nation in the second leg of their second and final round of the 2018 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup qualifiers.

The clash takes place on Saturday at Stade Boubker Aamar in Sale, Morocco. The South Africans lead 5-1 from the first leg played at the Dobsonville Stadium on 4 February.

‘We are happy that we arrived safely and sound, that is very important to us,’ said coach Simphiwe Dludlu. ‘From the minute we left our base to get to our hotel in Rabat, we calculated 25 hours of travel, and we are not complaining – it’s part of the game, we set ourselves to that. We understand what is ahead of us and what we need to do to achieve our goal – and that goal is for us to be ready for Saturday.’

It has been a long journey in the qualifiers for Dludlu’s team, which started with Botswana in December, and with just 90 minutes remaining to qualification, reality is setting in.

‘Yes indeed, reality is setting in. This is a moment to be proud of for the team, that we are so near to reaching our goal. This is the only 90 minutes that matter before the World Cup, but we are not looking beyond that as yet. We are looking at what needs to happen, how do we get there and how focused we must be for this last game before we can qualify,’ added Dludlu.

‘At the moment, we are level with Morocco because this is a new game altogether, new venue, new match officials, new feeling, new weather – in fact new everything. For us it is important to focus on what we can control. We have to keep in mind that Morocco are also a team that still wants to qualify.’

Bantwana started camp last Friday and after a few training sessions in South Africa, they are left with two final sessions on Thursday and Friday before the big game on Saturday.

‘The focus will be tactical discipline. More of what we are planning to do will be revealed on the field on Saturday. We are tapping into the mental state of the players to say we are away from home and the odds are stacked against you but we still need to come up tops and stronger. We are preparing the girls for war,’ said the former Banyana Banyana captain, who was also impressed by the visit of the President of the South African Football Association, Dr Danny Jordaan to the squad’s training session.

‘That meant a lot for the girls and the whole team because some have never met him before or just seen him on television or heard about him. And for him to come and wish us well made a huge impression on the squad, which was a much-needed booster ahead of this all-important upcoming clash.’

The only concern for Dludlu is the midfielder Sphumelele Shamase, who was subsituted in the first leg against Morocco. She has been training on her own since the start of camp to get her ready for the second leg.

‘She is coming up well because the strength and conditioning coach has been working with her separately so that she doesn’t miss out in terms fitness levels. After her shoulder injury the balance is not there and she has now injured her groin, but the fortunate thing about youth is that they heal quicker and with proper treatment she will be ready for Saturday. But at the same time we have 20 players who are all willing to slot in if the need arises,’ said Dludlu.

The Bantwana coach further dispelled the notion that South Africa are home and dry, thanks to the 5-1 lead from the first leg.

‘Someone might say you have it easy, you have it in the bag, even if you field your second string team, but that is not the case. When you are on the verge of succeeding, the pressure mounts, which means the focus has to be better. You need to be precise in your planning and you need to work even harder because when you have nothing to lose you just do things, but when there is a lot at stake and a lot to lose, it makes it so much more difficult,’ said Dludlu.

‘So we will continue to working hard, we will give nothing but the best on that field. It excites me because I know what it will mean for every girl that is in this team to say I was part of that squad that qualified for the World Cup. The biggest thing will be seeing the smile on those girls’ faces when the final whistle is blown, that is what will warm my heart.’

Be that as it may, Dludlu is under no illusion that the host nation will be like lambs to the slaughter in this upcoming qualifier.

‘I’m expecting Morocco to come up with a new and more motivated team, I’m expecting them to bring the fight because they are playing at home and they have shown that left unchecked, they can hurt you. They are a team that doesn’t give up. We are expecting nothing but a tough match, and that is what we are preparing for because they still have hopes of qualifying. But as a team, we are ready for the challenge,’ added Dludlu.

Bantwana are one of three African nations battling for a spot at the 2018 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup, scheduled for 13 November to 1 December in Uruguay.

In other fixtures, Ghana, who won 9-0 in the first leg, host Djibouti on Sunda while Cameroon will welcome Nigeria in Yaounde on Saturday – the first leg clash ended in a 2-2 stalemate in Benin City, Nigeria.

Winners of the second round will represent Africa at the World Cup tournament.