Four-horse race: Here's who we think will end up winning the PSL
Tomorrow's season-defining clash between Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns sets the scene for a scintillating finish to the season
You lose Percy Tau. You lose Khama Billiat. You lose Leonardo Castro. You lose Keagan Dolly. You lose Bongani Zungu.
Losing such influential personnel who played pivotal roles in your dominance of the domestic league would cripple many a club. Not Mamelodi Sundowns. The departure of such a quintessential quintet would amount to a crisis for many a coach.
Not Pitso Mosimane, the Sundowns coach for whom consistency is a middle name. as he continues to show that he is cut from a different cloth from the rest of his colleagues. The exit of the fabulous five was not a simultaneous exodus but they were crucial cogs who played a pivotal part in the ascendency of the Chloorkop crowd.
The Yellow Nation is singing a "catch us if you can" chorus as the season enters the final stretch. Dislodging Downs from the summit usually proves a Herculean task - only Kaizer Chiefs and Bidvest Wits have stolen the title from under the noses of the mellow yellow in the last five seasons.
THE GOOD AND BAD
Teams in transition usually hit turbulence, which, if not well managed, could spiral into turmoil. Usually, the departure of core players like the aforementioned leaves a huge void. The arrival of new recruits brings about disruption as they try to assimilate to the culture of their new surroundings. Not with Sundowns. They've mastered the art of plugging the gaps.
Offensively, the likes of Gaston Sirino, Lebogang Maboe and Phakamani Mahlambi have hit the ground running, adding bite.
Defensively, Rivaldo Coetzee is a player reborn, richly rewarding Mosimane for his patience. Mosa Lebusa is finding his feet. Lyle Lakay is more than okay as a marauding locomotive down the flank whether asked to defend or attack. Furthermore, Mosimane knows when to bring out the big guns like Anthony Laffor and re-energise the indefatigable captain Hlompho Kekana.
The major downside with Downs is that there is such a plethora of talent that is latent. George Lebese toyi-toyied his way out on loan to SuperSport. Journeyman Toni Silva typed a loveless love letter and shipped out. Oupa Manyisa is greying like a Sassa-collecting ou toppie. Andile Jali is like an opening and closing mall door - today he is in, tomorrow he is out. Jeremy Brockie is misfiring like a blind one-armed sniper.
Aubrey Mngoma and Lucky Mohomi are largely unused. Mogakolodi Ngele and Cuthbert Malajila are twiddling their thumbs in the stands. No one held a gun to their heads to become Brazilians.
THE VERDICT: CHAMPIONS
Pretenders to the throne have had a chance to derail Mosimane's dream of taking Downs to title No 10 - he has contributed three PSL titles, taking Downs to eight, and wants two more. No one knows how to navigate the final stretch better than Jingles. Sundowns are set to retain the title.
- Bareng-Batho Kortjaas
Football coaches all over the world tend to mark their team's momentum using a block of five games. And Gavin Hunt, the Bidvest Wits coach, would have hoped his charges would build on their brilliant results in their first five matches this season.
Two impressive wins at home against Free State Stars (3-0) and AmaZulu (3-0) accompanied by the other two victories away to Kaizer Chiefs (1-3) and Orlando Pirates (0-1), had most pundits convinced that the Clever Boys were well on their way to claim their second league title in three seasons.
It is a sentiment Hunt himself, a four-time winner of this title, would have echoed given the fact in those four matches they had beaten SA giants Chiefs and Pirates away in successive matches. That's no mean feat and not too many teams can boast that record.
THE GOOD AND BAD
The only blot in that amazing start for Wits was a 1-0 loss at home to SuperSport United, coming on the back of three wins in the opening matches.
That loss to SuperSport was to underline Wits' form at home this season, with four other losses coming at home against Polokwane City (0-1), Bloemfontein Celtic (1-2), Chiefs (0-2) and Cape Town City (2-3).
Hunt conceded his team's home form derailed them in their league campaign.
"We're gonna have to play like hell (if they are to win the league)," admitted Hunt this week. "We were in such a good position and then we let it go. We came back in the last match but what's gone is gone.
"We're gonna have to concentrate in the next six games. Anything can happen, we just need to be a little confident at home where we haven't been."
Away from Milpark is where Hunt's team has collected most points (24) after winning seven and drawing four with two losses against Highlands Park (2-1) and AmaZulu FC (2-0).
Having beaten Pirates away early in the season, Wits should fancy their chances in what will be their next league match at home. Other than Pirates, it is the away fixture against SuperSport that Hunt will also be a little worried about.
But given the fact that no title chasing has been consistent this season, you've got to agree with Hunt when he says "anything can still happen". Wits may have endured their worst run in their last five matches, losing three, drawing one and winning the last one, but ruling them out of winning the league could be childish.
That Hunt has four regular Bafana Bafana players in skipper Thulani Hlatshwayo, Sifiso Hlanti, Buhle Mkhwanazi and goalkeeper Darren Keet should count in his team's favour as they would want to maintain their form going to the Africa Cup of Nations in June. What may hurt Wits in the end, though, is their lack of discipline. If they can limit the numbers of players on yellow and red cards, they'll be in with a chance.
- Sazi Hadebe
That Pirates have only managed three times to win two games in succession, tells a story of the Buccaneers' inconsistency this season.
Ironically, Pirates are one game behind leaders Sundowns on a number of losses [three], but it is the 10 drawn matches - six of them at Orlando Stadium - that has kept Bucs out of the top of the Absa Premiership table.
Draws at home against Highlands Park (1-1), Cape Town City (1-1), Golden Arrows (0-0), Maritzburg United (0-0), Baroka FC (1-1) and Bloemfontein Celtic (1-1), have all come back to haunt Milutin Sredojevic's team.
Even the wins [four] that Bucs have earned at home are two games shy of matching the full spoils they have picked up on their travels.
THE GOOD AND BAD
What's been intriguing all season about Bucs is why their three coaches Sredojevic, Rhulani Mokwena and Fadlu Davids have not figured out how to get the best out of Augustine Mulenga the way the Zambian national team has been doing.
The same can be said of Mulenga's countryman and Bucs main striker Justin Shonga, whose inexplicable misses in front of goals far exceeds the five league goals he's managed to score.
The statistics are far gloomier for Mulenga, who only has two league goals to his name despite starting as many games for Bucs this season.
The irrational form of the Bucs strikers greatly illustrates their erratic record, though one has to commend the form they showed in 10 matches after completing the first five. In those matches Pirates won five and drew five, a form that included their 2-1 first- round victory over nemesis Kaizer Chiefs.
It is the form that Pirates showed after those 10 matches that has dented their chances of winning their first league title since 2011-12 under Ruud Krol. From their 16th match to the 23rd, Sredojevic's team won three, drew four and lost one against SuperSport United. Hardly a run one can associate with title challengers.
THE VERDICT: THIRD PLACE
Though Bucs may see their exit from the Caf Champions League as something of a blessing in disguise in their pursuit of the league title, stability is one thing they cannot be trusted on.
As seen in their last three league games, Pirates can play a blinder in dismantling AmaZulu 4-1, go on to win 1-0 away to Golden Arrows but return to their wasteful ways with a last-gasp 1-1 draw at home to Bloemfontein Celtic. That's been Bucs' shortcoming: failure to keep momentum.
Desperation, like we saw when Bucs exited the Champions League, is something we can expect in their last seven matches, starting with a tough one against Sundowns at home on Monday. That Pirates will meet Sundowns minus their suspended top scorer [six goals] Vincent Pule and injured midfielder Xola Mlambo, does not inspire much confidence.
- Sazi Hadebe
CAPE TOWN CITY
A compact team that never gives up, one that can come back from being down and that is getting classier as the coach gets more educated and experienced.
That's Cape Town City in a nutshell. For a wet-behind-the-ears team, City, in their third season, are punching way above their weight. They won the Telkom Knockout in their maiden season under Eric Tinkler. Last season incumbent coach Benni McCarthy lost the MTN8 final to his predecessor Tinkler. This season he got his revenge, savouring the sweet success of his first silverware by winning the selfsame MTN8 against the very same Tinkler. McCarthy is also chasing a treble - fourth-placed City play Kaizer Chiefs in the Nedbank Cup quarterfinal at Mbombela Stadium today. It would be a helluva crazy time in Cape Town if the son of Hanover Park could add two cups and a league in only his second year as a head coach.
THE GOOD AND BAD
Of the four title-chasers, City are the highest scoring. With 39 goals, they are the sharpest sharpshooters in the league. Siphelele "Shaka Zulu" Mthembu is the spearhead and tops the scoring chart with seven strikes. He seems to be a beneficiary of being coached by McCarthy, Bafana Bafana's all-time-record striker. Riyaad Norodien, Roland Putsche and Ayanda Patosi (who joined Iran club Esteghlal in January) have contributed 12 goals, four each.
Kermit Erasmus and Bradley Ralani each have three. City's recruitment policy is a major strength. They sign what they need. Norodien, surplus to requirements at Orlando Pirates, has proved a fine purchase. When Patosi exited for Iran, Erasmus entered from Europe to add spark and firepower.
On the downside, City have to resolve their issues in the rearguard. While they are in fine fettle upfront, their credible work is undermined by a porous defence, which has shipped 30 goals. That's eight fewer than the worst-conceding team in the league, Free State Stars. City's campaign was dealt a terrible blow when they lost fulcrum Putsche and Thabo Nodada to injury midway through the season.
But the character of City shines through in their ability to soldier on despite losing key players and continue to mount a challenge for league honours. Even when they are not at their peak, they are not to be taken lightly and have shown that they have the stomach to battle it out with the big boys.
THE VERDICT: FOURTH PLACE
Their hopes will be extinguished through the inexperience of navigating the final straight and closing in the championship race. Novice coach McCarthy is up against wily old foxes in Pitso Mosimane, Gavin Hunt and Milutin Sredojevic. He has had the beating of all three, especially Hunt, whom he whipped four times in league and cup last season. They play with the freedom of not having the burden of a huge support base. Fourth will be an improvement from their fifth-place finish last term, but one below the third position attained in their first year in the PSL.
- Bareng-Batho Kortjaas