Sport

WEEKEND SOCCER FIXTURES

Sundowns to clash swords with Pirates in mouthwatering marquee fixture as DStv Premiership returns

Sundowns to clash swords with Pirates in mouthwatering marquee fixture as DStv Premiership returns
Lebohang Maboe of Mamelodi Sundowns and Relebohile Mofokeng of Orlando Pirates during the MTN8 final. (Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

An Orlando Pirates outfit chasing consistency clashes with a Mamelodi Sundowns team that has become the prototype of consistency in the South African top flight. 

Following a hiatus that exceeded a month, South Africa’s domestic league, the DStv Premiership, will make a comeback this weekend. Unbeaten league leaders Mamelodi Sundowns take on Orlando Pirates in one of South Africa’s marquee football fixtures.

A long break

The last league fixture was played on 31 December 2023, before there was a break while the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) went on. The Premier Soccer League’s hierarchy initially had plans to restart the competition just a couple of days after Afcon ended.

However, with the South African Premiership providing a large contingent of players to the countries that were at the Ivory Coast-hosted continental competition, it was always not going to be ideal to kick off so soon after Afcon.

The league has since postponed the matches and will have to find a suitable period to play in future.

This weekend’s fixtures are no less exciting than the postponed match-ups. Saturday will see second-placed Cape Town City take on Chippa United at 3:30pm in East London.

Bottom of the log Cape Town Spurs, who have only earned four points from 16 matches and are hoping for a change in fortunes during the second half of the campaign, will host AmaZulu. Kick-off is at 5:30pm at Athlone Stadium.

Siyanda Msani of Cape Town Spurs

Siyanda Msani of Cape Town Spurs in action against Cape Town City FC. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

On Sunday Kaizer Chiefs tussle with Royal AM in Pietermaritzburg, while TS Galaxy will look to claim precious points versus Golden Arrows.

The most enticing fixture this weekend though is the one between Pirates and Sundowns. The gap between the two sides is the size of the famous Kimberley hole. Despite playing two matches less than the Sea Robbers, Masandawana lead fifth-placed Pirates by a staggering 13 points.

Stopping a bullet train

Sundowns are well on their way to a seventh consecutive league title, having turned the South African top-flight into their playground. Former powerhouses such as Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, as well as the other 13 sides in the Premiership, are constantly fighting it out for second place.

The dominance of the Brazilians was evident for all to see at Afcon through Bafana Bafana’s bronze medal-winning team. South Africa’s coach Hugo Broos fielded about six Sundowns stars per match as Bafana Bafana reached their first Afcon semifinals in 24 years.

In fact, South Africa’s defence was holistically made up of Masandawana players for the majority of the matches at the continental showpiece. From goalkeeper and captain Ronwen Williams, to the centre-back pairing of Grant Kekana and Mothobi Mvala. Plus, fullbacks Khuliso Mudau and Aubrey Modiba.

Then were midfielders Teboho Mokoena and Themba Zwane, who made the team tick in their own individually brilliant way.

Bafana Bafana landed at OR Tambo International Airport on Wednesday, 14 February. As such, the large contingent of players that featured at Afcon for Bafana Bafana are unlikely to be thrown into the deep end against Pirates.

Relebohile Mofokeng of Orlando Pirates

Relebohile Mofokeng of Orlando Pirates during the MTN8 final against Mamelodi Sundowns. (Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Crowds brave early hours to give Bafana Bafana a hero’s welcome after Afcon performance

Not that they don’t possess the quality and professionalism to adjust swimmingly, in case Sundowns’ technical team calls on them.

“We know how difficult the game is going to be. It’s always very difficult after such a long period [of inactivity]. We have not had all our players at the same time for every single training session. Which also makes it a little bit complicated,” Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena told journalists ahead of the crunch clash, which takes place at 8pm on Saturday night at Loftus Versfeld.

“But we’ve got a very good squad. We’ve got a lot of very good players in every position. So, we feel we are strong enough to be able to go into the game with the squad that we have, and whatever possibilities that might be available with the players that just returned,” Mokwena added.

Indeed, the Brazilians are stacked with quality. So strong and alluring is the Tshwane-based side, that during the recent mid-season transfer window, they recruited one of Pirates’ star players: Thembinkosi Lorch.

Thembinkosi Lorch, Sundowns

Thembinkosi Lorch of Mamelodi Sundowns. (Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix)

The 30-year-old attacker spent almost a decade as a Sea Robber, before jumping ship to join the Brazilians. At Pirates, he had made sporadic appearances due to fitness issues over the last couple of years. He also battled with off-field issues. At the tail-end of 2023, he was slapped with a five-year suspended sentence and fined R100,000 for assaulting his then-girlfriend in 2020.

Still, he remains a firm fan favourite in South African soccer circles. The Sundowns chapter is an opportunity for a reset. And, of course, an opportunity for him to try to capture the Caf Champions League. Which Sundowns remain ravenous for after some near misses in recent seasons.

Alongside Lorch, Masandawana may call on their super striker Peter Shalulile. The Namibian is back from captaining his country to their maiden knockout qualification at Afcon. Unlike the Bafana players, he has had more time to rest and reintegrate into the Sundowns setup. The same is true for his compatriot and Pirates key man, Deon Hotto.

Chasing consistency

Though the Buccaneers did not have a contingent as strong as the Sundowns one in the Bafana squad, they still contributed some players. Nkosinathi Sibisi, Thabang Monare, Zakhele Lepasa and Evidence Makgopa were all in Ivory Coast. Though, other than regular Makgopa, they only featured occasionally, so they may play a part on Saturday night.

A win for the Buccaneers would be the perfect start to the second half of the season. Especially after a first half where they were far from being consistent. They won seven matches, drew four and lost five.

“We told ourselves that in the second half of the season, we’re going to give it our all. We’re going to do our best, anything is possible and we’re working towards that. The only thing that will talk for us is the performances on the field,” said Pirates defender Thabiso Monyane.

Starting this endeavour against a Brazilians outfit that is undefeated and has won 12 of their 14 league games is tricky at best. However, if it goes well for the Sea Robbers, it will be a major boost to their ambitions for the rest of the campaign. DM

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