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Game preview: South Africa-Mexico

June 3, 2010
Latham By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

WHAT'S ON THE LINE

The opening match will help determine the upside for Mexico and South Africa. The teams might start a bit conservatively -- both will be anxious about losing points, as there are no easy ones to be had in Group A against France or Uruguay.

The hosts are faced with the undesirable possibility of becoming the first home team to miss out on the second round. If they want to avoid that distinction, Bafana Bafana simply can't afford to lose this game. Playing in front of a raucous crowd at Soccer City, this is South Africa's chance to shine. South African fans can prove fickle, and if their team can't get it going against Mexico in the opening match, it could be hard for Bafana Bafana to win back the crowd -- and home-field advantage -- down the road.

Playing the opening game is a huge test for Mexico as well. El Tri has a long history of performing well in group matches, and after trouncing Italy in its final friendly match, many expect even bigger things this year. But to win Group A, Mexico likely will need to beat South Africa on its home turf.

STYLE AND TACTICS

Javier Aguirre has a complicated system in mind for Mexico -- a hybrid 4-4-2, with two strikers surrounded by a pair of wide midfielders who push into the attack frequently. But an injury to one of his two useful target men -- Guillermo Franco -- might have thrown a wrench into those plans, and Aguirre could instead opt for a more standard 4-3-3 with two wingers supporting Javier Hernandez in the middle.

With veteran Benni McCarthy out of the picture, South Africa plays more of a 4-5-1, with star Steven Pienaar at the point behind a lone striker. The stacked midfield plays to South Africa's strengths by allowing a number of creative options to roam the attacking third while also congesting the midfield for teams such as Mexico, which likes to play the ball forward on the ground.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Reneilwe Letsholonyane, South Africa. There are several names on the South African roster that you will hear for the first time. Some aren't easy to say, but fans around the world will learn them as they get used to the surprising play of some under-the-radar South Africans. Letsholonyane is a holding midfielder who will have to play a huge role in containing Mexico's attack.

Siphiwe Tshabalala, South Africa. The Mexican defense could have trouble dealing with the pace this South Africa-based winger brings to the left wing.

Giovanni Dos Santos, Mexico. El Tri is at its best when its live wire is on his game. How Dos Santos matches up with the South African defense will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the match.

WHAT WE CAN EXPECT

This should be a very entertaining game to kick off the World Cup. Neither team is afraid to go forward and both feature some solid attacking playmakers who can do special things in the offensive third.

The South African squad is not quite as bad as it is made out to be. Playing at home, it could surprise to some degree with its skill and offensive weaponry. But South Africa's defense in untested at this level, so expect the backline to give up some good chances to an aggressive and prepared Mexican team. Bafana Bafana will get fewer clear chances on goal but could prove better at putting them away than the sometimes-wasteful Mexicans.

Aside from the soccer, the atmosphere at Soccer City will be sensational. A packed house with nearly 100,000 fans clad in bright yellow and green, blowing energetically on their vuvuzelas, will make for a sensational scene to see and hear.

INTANGIBLES

South Africans have waited years -- even lifetimes -- for the moment the whistle blows July 11. So the home crowd at the World Cup's opening match will undoubtedly be a factor.

But if Bafana Bafana wanted an opponent that would be intimidated by that kind of atmosphere, they would have needed to look elsewhere. Mexico is unlikely to be overly concerned, after having faced even more hostile crowds in CONCACAF qualifying. The altitude in Johannesburg won't bother Mexico one bit, either, helping to further cancel out what could have been a larger home-field advantage for South Africa.

WHO'LL WIN

Mexico 2, South Africa 1. South Africa will surprise with its effort and skill, but in the end Mexico is too tough a first opponent for Bafana Bafana. Only wasteful finishing by Mexico will keep the game this close.