Mamelodi Sundowns boosted their title hopes with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Ajax Cape Town at Athlone Stadium on Sunday.
The first half made up for the lack of goal scoring opportunities with two or three key incidents which changed the complexion of the game.
The first was an injury to Ajax centre back Derek Decamps, and before there was even time to replace him with youngster Thulani Hlatshwayo, the hosts found themselves down to 10 men after Clayton Daniels was red-carded in the 27th minute.
Then there was what appeared to be a legitimate penalty appeal turned down when Elias Pelembe went down under Hlatshwayo’s challenge; referee Daniel Bennett electing to book the Downs winger for a dive, a decision that looked rather harsh.
Other than that, fans at a close to full capacity Athlone Stadium were forced to find most of their entertainment in the form of two intriguing battles — Matthew Booth versus Nathan Paulse and Nazier Allie versus former teammate Franklin Cale, and it was the two defenders who came out tops in both cases.
If anything Sundowns enjoyed a slight territorial advantage, but never really had a decent chance of a goal, while Ajax’s best opportunity fell to Diyo Sibisi eight minutes before the break, but he hit the side-netting from a tight angle.
Five minutes after the restart the best chance of game arrived when Hans Vonk was forced into making a diving save to keep out Esrom Nyandoro’s header.
And a minute later the first goal finally arrived when Hlatshwayo’s inexperience allowed Mphela to get to the by-line and present Lebohang Mokoena with a simple tap in.
Instead though of this opening the floodgates for the Tshwane side, Ajax continued to battle gamely with 10 men and Brian Baloyi had to be alert to keep out Granwald Scott’s shot on the hour, while Sibisi should have done better after being set up by Paulse.
Sundowns needed the cushion of a second goal to settle their nerves, but the likes of Surprise Moriri shot straight at Vonk, and then Matthew Pattison completely miscued his effort right in front of goal.
Instead the visiting side had to endure some anxious moments late on as George Maluleke sent a free kick just wide and a late rally from the home side in injury time saw all 11 Sundowns players camped in their own box.
The game certainly didn’t see Sundowns at their best, but away from home, against a side they have lost to in their last three games; this was an invaluable win and a crucial three points as the title race with SuperSport United looks to go to the wire. — Sapa