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Big target on Sundowns’ back as champions aim for a Premiership quintuple

Big target on Sundowns’ back as champions aim for a Premiership quintuple
Mamelodi Sundowns celebrate the League title after the DStv Premiership 2020/21 game between Mamelodi Sundowns and Cape Town City at Loftus Versveld Stadium on 5 June 2021. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

Can anyone stop Mamelodi Sundowns marching to a fifth consecutive Premiership crown?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The new DStv Premiership season is now just days away from kick-off and the plot lines are many and varied. The champions of the 2020/21 campaign, Mamelodi Sundowns, are gunning for an unprecedented fifth league title in a row.

The likes of Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and AmaZulu are aiming for Masandawana in an attempt to halt their remarkable run.

The Tshwane giants coasted to a record fourth league title in a row with co-coaches Manqoba Mngqithi and Rulani Mokwena at the helm last season. They are favourites heading into the 2021/22 campaign.

Mokwena, speaking recently, said he and Mngqithi’s charges were sharpening up for the new season with an eye on improving on their recent successes.

“We want to create a team that is a nightmare to play against. A team that can hurt opponents in different ways, and we have got to create a culture for that,” said Mokwena. “It is a mentality that we have got to create.”

Never afraid to splurge in the transfer market to bolster the team, Sundowns have recruited Maritzburg United’s top scorer of last season, Thabiso Kutumela, plus Divine Lunga from Golden Arrows and former Bloemfontein Celtic duo Neo Maema and Sifiso Ngobeni, as well as Grant Kekana, who has joined from Masandawana’s Tshwane rivals, SuperSport United.  

The team hopes that with these acquisitions they can improve on merely winning the league last season. “They are coming to a team that is always striving to achieve excellence, so it’s important for them to stay focused at all times. They have to add their quality to help the Yellow Nation continue [with] our dominance in our league and our quest to win the Champions League. [Therefore] it is important that they click immediately with the energy of everyone,” said Sundowns stalwart Sibusiso Vilakazi.

The Soweto giants

Meanwhile, last season the league drought continued for South Africa’s two most followed clubs, Pirates and Chiefs. The Soweto giants last triumphed in the marathon that is the Premiership in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

The Buccaneers did end their overall trophy drought when they won the MTN8 in 2020. They hoped the momentum of that long-savoured silverware success would carry them to the top of the Premiership as well. It didn’t, as they ended the last campaign in third position, trailing Sundowns by a mammoth 17 points.

The Buccaneers have also reeled in some big fish during the off-season, not least an addition to their technical team in the form of Mandla Ncikazi.The former Golden Arrows mentor, who helped Abafana Besthende to their highest-ever Premiership finish when he led them to fourth place last season, joined the Buccaneers as one of Josef Zinnbauer’s assistants alongside Fadlu Davids.

Zinnbauer is hopeful that having the experience of Ncikazi will yield better results on the field and see them finally halt Sundowns’ domestic dominance.  

“My first request to the club was to say, ‘Give me a second assistant coach.’ That was in my first season and now we have that with coach Mandla. Now we have more eyes on the field and we can manage our training sessions easier than before,” said the German coach.

“He’s just here to give us that thing we didn’t have just to make us great players again, and just give us that confidence booster. He knows what we are capable of and we are lucky to have him here at the club,” added Pirates midfield hardman Ben Motshwari.

As for Amakhosi, they have called on the man who last led them to winning silverware, Stuart Baxter. During his three-year spell the first time around, the Briton led Chiefs to two Premiership titles, as well as triumphs in the Nedbank Cup and MTN8 competitions.

Amakhosi have been without any major silverware since the Bafana Bafana coach departed in 2015. Six years later the Chiefs hierarchy has recalled him, with the hopes of adding to their four league triumphs in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) era.

“This time there’ll be a lot more expectations. This time it’s a tougher league. The league has improved in terms of the bottom teams, they’re not pushovers… It’ll be a challenge. But it’ll be an interesting challenge,” stated Baxter.

Amakhosi, after not being able to make any signings last season due to a Fifa-imposed transfer ban, have gone on a major recruitment drive. Sifiso Hlanti, Keagan Dolly, Cole Alexander, Phathutshedzo Nange and Bafana international Njabulo Ngcobo have joined.    

“We know what it takes to be successful and we are aware of the expectations that come with being in this team,” said Hlanti, who tasted league success with Bidvest Wits in 2016/2017.

“We also know there are lots of challenges but once you respond with a positive mentality you can achieve a lot. We understand that it is all about our supporters being happy. As players, we need to show hunger and reward them by winning because we know how much they love Chiefs.”

Amakhosi finished a lowly eighth position last season, but they did manage to reach the CAF Champions League final.

They will draw from that amazing continental run as they seek to propel themselves to the Premiership summit in 2022.

Orlando Pirates coach Josef Zinnbauer is hopeful that having the experience of Ncikazi will yield better results on the field and see them finally halt Sundowns’ domestic dominance. (Photo: Gavin Barker / BackpagePix)

Zulu warriors

AmaZulu were the surprise package of last season, finishing second behind Sundowns to qualify for the Champions League this season. They also are in the mix to challenge the big names.

Usuthu coach Benni McCarthy, who had the club playing some mouthwatering football last season and oversaw a 16-game unbeaten run, is confident his side will have an even more memorable campaign in 2021/2022. Including winning the Champions League.

“We can go one better than Kaizer Chiefs in the Champions League. No disrespect to Chiefs but we genuinely think we can do better‚” said last campaign’s PSL coach of the season.

“We’re not going in there in the Champions League just to add numbers. We’re going because we see ourselves as title contenders.”

So far, McCarthy has bolstered his squad by adding former Chiefs midfielder Keagan Buchanan, Mxolisi Kunene from Maritzburg and SA under-23 captain Tercious Malepe.

Relegation candidates

Teams such as Stellenbosch, Baroka, Bloemfontein Celtic, Marumo Gallants (formerly Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila), Maritzburg United, TS Galaxy and newcomers Sekhukhune United are all likely to battle it out for survival in the coming season.

Perennial relegation candidates Chippa United are also likely to be there as well.

Although the hope from the club’s owner Chippa Mpengesi – infamous for his constant hiring and firing of coaches – is that having the decorated Gavin Hunt at the helm will see them well clear of the danger zone.  

“People have been coming and going [at the club]‚” said Hunt of his appointment in July.

“But I saw it as a project and we’ve had a long discussion about things. Obviously, the first important thing is to get the team competitive and to be a little bit more stable, and to challenge.” DM168

Opening DStv Premiership fixtures:

Friday, 20 August

Mamelodi Sundowns vs AmaZulu

(Loftus Versfeld)

Saturday, 21 August

Orlando Pirates vs Stellenbosch

(Orlando Stadium)

Sekhukhune United vs Chippa United 

(Makhulong Stadium)

Golden Arrows vs Maritzburg United 

(Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium)

Baroka FC vs Marumo Gallants

(New Peter Mokaba Stadium)

Cape Town City vs SuperSport United 

(Cape Town Stadium)

Sunday, 22 August

Swallows FC vs Bloemfontein Celtic 

(Dobsonville Stadium)

TS Galaxy vs Kaizer Chiefs

(Mbombela Stadium)

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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