Mamelodi Sundowns won the first round of the ”battle of Pretoria” when they edged past their city rivals SuperSport United 2-1 in a hard-fought first-leg MTN8 semifinal played at Atteridgeville’s Super Stadium on Sunday.
It was a thrilling, no-holds-barred contest, but United can take the consolation of having scored an away goal that they take into the second leg at the same venue on Saturday night (8.15pm). The teams share the Super Stadium as their home ground.
But it was a disastrous debut for the Brazilians’ new striker Sibusiso Zuma, who was sent off in injury time by referee Daniel Bennett for a second bookable offence.
The veteran Zuma, reportedly the highest-paid player in the Premier Soccer league, was making his first appearance for his new club after he was signed from Bundesliga outfit Arminia Bielefeld in the off-season.
A 1-0 win on the return leg — United’s home tie — would be enough for the PSL champions to play in the final. But United coach Gavin Hunt knows that there is a still a long road ahead before he can think of the final and winner-takes-all prize of R8-million.
Downs suffered another setback when their new striker and former United star Katlego Mphela injured a muscle during the warm-up and was withdrawn from the team. He was replaced by his Bafana Bafana teammate Lerato Chabangu.
It was a bitter blow as Mphela scored the only goal in the quarterfinal win over Free State Stars at the same venue last Sunday. He was keen to prove a point to his former club.
It is also a blow for Bafana coach Joel Santana. Mphela was due to leave with teammates Surprise Moriri, Zuma and United defender Bongani Khumalo for London after the match to join their national teammates for playing Australia in a friendly international at Loftus Road Stadium, the home of Queens Park Rangers.
There was no love lost between these two fierce Pretoria rivals in an action-packed opening half. New Downs defender Siboniso Gaxa showed no mercy to former teammate Daine Klate midway through the half when the former United skipper nailed him with a crunching tackle that sent the United winger flying.
The Brazilians drew first blood in the 11th minute when their Chilean midfielder scored after United’s Ugandan international goalkeeper, Denis Onyango, fumbled his first shot at the near post but the wide-awake Acuna blasted the loose ball home to put Downs 1-0 ahead.
Chabangu was wide with a shot after 25 minutes and then Downs defender Mbulelo ”OJ” Mabizela headed over the crossbar from a corner.
But United have shown that when the going gets tough, they can get tougher. They put Downs defence under pressure at the end of the half and it took a goal-line clearance from Mabizela to deny the speedy Klate an equaliser two minutes from the break.
The pressure paid off in injury time when former Downs midfielder Brent Carelse, who joined United in the off-season, scored against his old club on debut when he headed home a superb Klate free kick that gave keeper Brian Baloyi no chance.
United could have gone into the lead after 52 minutes when the lively Klate got the better of Gaxa and steamed forward, but none of his teammates was as awake and his cross into the penalty area was snuffed out by the home side’s defenders.
Another defensive blunder — this time by Khumalo — allowed Moriri to make it 2-1 in the 58th minute. Moriri capitalised on the young defender’s mistake and clinically slammed home a well-taken goal into the far corner out of Onyango’s reach.
Both sides kept up the fierce pace. Gaxa could have wrapped up the game and possibly a place in the final in the 79th minute when he latched on to a pass from Benedict Vilakazi, but as a defender he can be forgiven for blasting his shot well over the crossbar.
Still, the Downs defence held firm and never looked in danger of losing their slender one-goal advantage. Zuma, with almost the last kick of the game, was sent off for a second caution — this time on Klate. — Sapa