After a two-week festive-season break the DStv Premiership returned to action at the weekend, with crucial maximum points for two teams at opposite ends of the table.
Both title contenders, Mamelodi Sundowns and the relegation-threatened Maritzburg United, started the year on a positive note as they beat Orlando Pirates and Bloemfontein Celtic respectively.
For Sundowns, who are increasingly favoured to lift their fourth league crown on the trot, the 1-0 win over rivals and the team tipped to closely challenge them for the crown this season will be a welcome boost to their charge for the title.
For one, the win consolidated their spot at the summit, moving them three points clear of surprise challengers, second-placed Swallows. The Dube Birds do have a game in hand, though, having played eight to Masandawana’s nine.
The win also leaves the Buccaneers — who were favourites to run Sundowns close before the season started — a sizeable eight points behind the league leaders. This pleased Sundowns co-coach Manqoba Mngqithi.
“The three points were very important for us, this was one crucial match for us. We knew it was going to be a six-pointer and it is very important that when you get a six-pointer you go all out. I am happy with the boys, with the coaches and everyone within the team, they have done very well,” he said after the first game of the year.
The Covid-19 factor
Swallows have a chance to bridge the gap when they tackle Cape Town City on Tuesday afternoon, in one of four fixtures that were meant to be evening games (7pm kick-off) but were moved forward by a couple of hours to comply with the government’s Level 3 curfew requirements. These state that sporting arenas must be shut by 8pm.
As it stands, the league is free to continue playing since only amateur sport was halted as a result of the reintroduction of Level 3. Of course, the country, and indeed the world, finds itself on very unstable ground. So, the liberty to continue business can be revoked at any time.
That would be detrimental to an already compressed and jam-packed 2020/21 league season and would result in clubs suffering financially, with players possibly asked to take pay cuts.
Last season, the league, with the patience of sponsors, managed to avoid this worst-case scenario. This time things might not work out so well.
One of the teams who will be hoping the football continues is Maritzburg. The Team of Choice, with Ernst Middendorp at the helm after the sacking of Eric Tinkler at the tail-end of 2020, recorded their first win of the season, and the first in 15 games, with the victory over Celtic.
Sitting 15th and level on five points apiece with bottom dwellers Black Leopards and 14th-placed Chippa United, the KwaZulu-Natal-based side will be looking to use the momentum of their new-year victory to steadily climb the table.
“It’s [the victory over Celtic] not just for me, but for the entire Maritzburg United institution,” Middendorp said after the 2-1 win. “The fans, the supporters were waiting for it and it was three points needed, beginning of the year, first game, to just get connected to the rest of the pack. That is crucial for now.
“The team is prepared for fighting, for coming back to the level they can play. But in the moment we need to do it with more confidence, with more self-esteem from everybody’s position.”
New year, new faces
Middendorp is not the only new face that’s taken over a DStv Premiership team over the past few weeks. AmaZulu, Chippa and TS Galaxy have all shuffled the pack, roping in Benni McCarthy, Dan Malesela and Zipho Dlangalala respectively.
The most exciting of these appointments is that of McCarthy by Usuthu. The former Cape Town City coach is yet another part of AmaZulu president Sandile Zungu’s plan to propel the KZN side to the pinnacle of South African football.
McCarthy has a plethora of talented players to work with after AmaZulu went on a shopping spree in the off season. The team’s hierarchy deemed then coach Ayanda Dlamini to not be the right man to fulfil their ambitions, and in mid-December McCarthy was unveiled as his replacement.
In 2021, he will be hoping to help the team climb the table from their current eighth place. Before the season started Zungu said he wished to see the side finish in the top four this season. It’s not an impossible task, but Usuthu will have to really kick on from now to make it a reality.
“It has been a pleasure being back and seeing how the team has changed and how just almost overnight they’ve become a team who want to play football and enjoy what they do. They buy into what I am pulling out for them, my philosophy and that, so we will see how it goes,” McCarthy said on the club’s website recently.
At the Chilli boys, Malesela replaced the booted Lehlohonolo Seema, who is now assisting Dylan Kerr at Black Leopards. Malesela was sacked by the 12th-placed TS Galaxy and replaced on an interim basis by Dlangalala. DM
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