Pirates vs Sundowns: Sun sets on league hopes in clash of former titans
When the fixture list was released, this clash was supposed to be one of the games that defined the season.
By the end of the first half of their first game, Sundowns fans had reason to believe that this was going to be their year. Within 37 minutes of the start of their MTN 8 quarterfinal, they led Kaizer Chiefs 4-0. Their Dutch coach Johan Neeskens was finally going to deliver what he had been brought for from the famed Barcelona.
Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter seemed a dead man walking, with Chiefs fans doubting if he was the right man to end their eight-year wait for a league trophy and the type of cup success the club had become accustomed to.
How fortunes have turned.
Baxter is on course for a league and cup double while Sundowns are being forced to start planning for the new season.
Sundowns' 2012-2013 season unravelled as quickly as the blitz that hit Chiefs. Downs were knocked out in the next round of the tournament by the eventual winners Moroka Swallows. From there it was a downward spiral for billionaire Patrice Motsepe's expensive hobby.
Baxter will be close to fulfilling the Chiefs' dream of reclaiming glory if Platinum Stars fail to beat Golden Arrows on Saturday, if Orlando Pirates do not claim maximum points when they face Leopards on Wednesday, and if they themselves beat SuperSport United on the same day.
Sundowns, under their second coach of the season, Pitso Mosimane, will be hoping to beat Pirates on Saturday, and thus enhance their chances of finishing in the top half of the log. Their revival, if that is what their last two fixtures were, has come too late for Sundowns, Pirates and their suffering supporters.
Sundowns' 5-2 win over haunted Black Leopards on Tuesday should have excited fans and sent a chill down the rest of the league's collective spine. Instead, it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Against Leopards, Downs raced off the blocks. They were 3-0 up within the first half an hour.
Fans might be forgiven for choosing not yet to believe that the result portends a new beginning. The memories of demolishing Chiefs as if they were rank amateurs only to be followed by being embarrassed by an ordinary Moroka Swallows will linger even among the most faithful of fans.
Sundowns' season has been the inability to string together more than two wins in succession. The victories against Leopards and Free State Stars were the first two in a row since the Leopards and Bidvest Wits games in December. Another flaw in the Downs' game plan is that the many individual stars at the club just never seem ready to be a team.
The outcome against Leopards suggested that the players might be close to realising that things tend to work better if they play as a team instead of thinking that the game is a contest of egos.
After last weekend's match, Pirates must have no such problem. In going down 0-1 to TP Mazembe in the cauldron of the Lumumbashi ground of the Democratic Republic of Congo champions, Pirates achieved more love and team spirit than they had done all season.
All things considered, defeat had never felt so good for those who swear by the black-and-white of Roger de Sa's side.
Considering that the South African champions had played for close to an hour with 10 men after captain Lucky Lekgwathi was shown a red card, and that goalkeeper Senzo Meyiya saved two penalties, the Buccaneers' defeat will forever be part of club folklore.
Had it happened five or six games ago, it might have been the fire Pirates needed to launch a serious assault in defence of their title. Nothing builds team cohesion like going through hardships together and emerging triumphant.
If the sight of fans blowing vuvuzelas and waving club flags at OR Tambo International airport on a Sunday night does not revive the warrior spirit of the Buccaneers, then nothing else will.
Then again, even if Pirates and Sundowns were to discover their spark now, it is too late. With two matches (three for Pirates) to go before the end of the season, their fate lies in others' hands.
For a change, Chiefs fans will not have to decide which of the two sides they hate the most. But they know the title is theirs to lose. They know that their rivals' match is, all things considered, of mere academic value.
As Sundowns or Pirates fans bury their heads in their hands at the end of the fixture and Chiefs' faithful continue enjoying their season, they will be painfully aware that, in the marathon that the league race is, it is not how you start but how you finish.