Maritzburg United set for Celtic challenge

Maritzburg United coach Gordon Igesund is calm, collected and oozes confidence as he gets his troops ready for what he said would be a ”cup final” when United host Bloemfontein Celtic in an Absa Premiership relegation battle at the Woodburn Stadium on Wednesday. Kick-off is at 3.30pm.

What has added spice to this dogfight is Phunya Sele-Sele’s 6-1 trouncing of another KwaZulu- Natal side, Thanda Royal Zulu (TRZ), at the Seisa Ramabodu Stadium on Sunday where on-loan striker Gert Schalkwyk scored a hat-trick on debut and inspired the rout that has plunged TRZ into the relegation mix.

United have 16 points from 18 matches, with Celtic at the bottom on 15 with a match in hand.

Celtic not only have Schalkwyk, but also a new coach in Owen Da Gama, who has a brilliant record in bringing Platinum Stars (former Silver Stars) from the obscurity of the Third Division to the promised land of the PSL, and crowning his career by winning the Telkom Knockout in 2006. Da Gama was brought on board this month to get Celtic out of relegation, and with four points from three matches, he is on track.

Da Gama, like Igesund, relays confidence to his players and it will be interesting to see two of our top local-born coaches go head to head in this vital relegation showdown.

Getting former Bafana Bafana striker Schalkwyk on loan from Kaizer Chiefs was a brilliant move from Da Gama. His faith in the striker was well founded, but Da Gama knows Schalkwyk will be a marked man. However, what was impressive was the way the likes of Petrus Mahlatsi, Moses Spandeel and Mark Mayambela helped Schalkwyk tear the TRZ defence to shreds.

But Igesund, winner of four PSL championship titles with as many teams, is too experienced a coach to let that 6-1 win panic him into making mistakes or changing his game plan, which he has been working on.

Said Igesund: ”I am not reading too much into that 6-1 win. Celtic could have scored double figures against a Thanda side that were off form that day. But Celtic will not have it easy against us. No doubt that this is a cup final but we are up for the challenge. I have worked on a game plan and we go into the match with plenty of confidence.”

This will be United’s sixth match in 17 days. ”It has been a period from hell but we have learned and played against some of the big guns and from here on our next seven games are at home, and that gives us added confidence.”

United started their ”fixtures from hell” 17 days ago when they lost 3-2 to Moroka Swallows (away), then lost 2-1 away to Orlando Pirates, beat Ajax Cape Town 2-0 at home and then were beaten 2-1 by Kaizer Chiefs in Rustenburg.

Said Igesund: ”Playing twice a week has taken its toll on the players and we have had suspensions to contend with, but there can be no excuses against Celtic. We all know this is a big, big game for both teams. But the programme has helped toughen the players mentally and physically.”

Out with a hamstring injury is experienced defender Dikulu Bageta, and striker Fadlu Davids is doubtful with a knee and foot blister problems. But Igesund insists he has depth and has replacements for both injured players.

Igesund said he expected the Woodburn Stadium to be bursting at the seams. ”The atmosphere is going to be fantastic.”

Da Gama admitted this is a six-pointer and he has stressed to his players not to get carried away.

Said Da Gama: ”Beating Thanda was a fantastic boost for the players but we know this is crunch time. Gordon is a great coach and he has a formidable side, especially at home, so this is going to be a real tough game with more than three points at stake.” — Sapa

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