The anticipated grandstand finish promised for the final weeks of the Premier Soccer League was swept from the agenda in the space of 24 hours midweek as Kaizer Chiefs moved closer to coronation and Mamelodi Sundowns all but abdicated their throne.
It seems incredible that such a lengthy, seesaw campaign that promised to end in a pulsating two-team challenge is now destined to have its major business concluded by this time next week, leaving only the fighting over the scraps for us to savour before the league ends on May 10. Chiefs will win a record-extending 12th title if they beat Polokwane City at home on Wednesday, moving out of reach of the chasing pack led by Sundowns.
Chiefs had seen a significant lead eroded after a stuttering start to the new year, coming out of the Christmas break lacking conviction and looking even more beleaguered when Sundowns threatened to launch a significant run, as they had last season, and usurp them at the top.
Chiefs won just one of their first five league games after the break, but successive triumphs since over Moroka Swallows, AmaZulu and the University of Pretoria, on Tuesday, have maintained their lead. Siphiwe Tshabalala has had a relatively mediocre last year by his own previous high standards but a curling free kick for Chiefs on Tuesday at AmaTuks has probably made his, and his club’s, season.
Sundowns hoping Chiefs will stumble again
The 1-0 away win restored a double digital points lead, lifting Chiefs up to 60 and leaving Sundowns knowing they will need to win all their remaining games, and hoping Chiefs stumble again, for them to stand any chance of coming from behind to take a successive championship.
Five out of six victories in the league since February had Sundowns looking capable, and then even after they dropped points last week at Mpumalanga Black Aces, there were still many who believed. Bidvest Wits coach Gavin Hunt, with three championships of his own to boast about, was, last Friday, still convinced Sundowns could turn it around.
But Tuesday’s victory for Chiefs was a significant result. Not only did it prove a major boost, but served also to deflate Sundowns, so much so that on Wednesday it all imploded for Pitso Mosimane’s men.
The 5-0 loss at home to Bloemfontein Celtic was a calamitous setback at a crucial juncture that means they can now only finish with a maximum of 62 points. The title is surely lost, for they can only win it now if Chiefs fail in their remaining four matches.
Tactically Sundowns were outsmarted by Clinton Larsen, the Celtic coach who had travelled to Mbombela in the last week to spy on the opposition, and returned with a game plan to steal possession and sting Sundowns on the counter, seeking to suck forward the two centre backs and also use the space that the Sundowns fullbacks cede when they push forward.
It took just 40 seconds to yield a first goal, albeit courtesy of a horror error, but a second goal less than 10 minutes later came according to plan, with a incisive pass from deep catching Sundowns cold.
A fourth game in the space of 10 days was always going to be difficult but this is why, we have been repeatedly told, Sundowns had been so promiscuous in the transfer market and assembled such an expansive squad. Fighting on various fronts demanded a regiment of players.
Yet coach Mosimane has not attempted any real rotation and stuck with much the same line-up since February. They are patently running near empty. It was all too predictable and Celtic proved a tigerish midfield approach, tight defence and the ability to turn to attack quickly is an easy measure of Sundowns’s much vaunted squad. Much like Chiefs have played all season.
Sundowns will also play again on Wednesday, against Platinum Stars at home in what is now likely to be a damp squib, as Chiefs take on Polokwane at the same time with the champagne put on ice much earlier than they planned, or anyone else thought possible.