Conventional wisdom has it that only five clubs are realistic contenders for the Premier Soccer League (PSL) title this season, because their resources vastly outstrip those of the rest in the 16-team league.
It is no different to most other championships around the world of football where the standard for success is the depth of the pockets of the owners. In England these days, there are four real contenders for the league crown, one more than in Spain, and there are usually just two in Portugal. In Germany, Bayern Munich nowadays only need pitch up to take the honours.
Five seems almost a luxury and is certainly enough to engender the requisite anticipation, intrigue and excitement to ensure the legitimacy of the league, even if the quintet could do with some refreshing.
So, as the new league season kicks off on Saturday, the question is which of Bidvest Wits, Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns, Orlando Pirates or SuperSport United will take the title. All have shown acumen in the transfer market as they strengthened their squads for the coming campaign, albeit in a far more measured manner than in previous years.
It means there is the likelihood of more consistency, a tighter tussle and less unpredictability – although this week’s MTN8 matches saw four of the famous five eliminated in direct contradiction to that theory.
Past form tells us, however, to disregard these results as the clubs work through early cobwebs. It was only three years ago that Chiefs let in four goals in the first half of their MTN8 quarterfinal against Sundowns in a horror start at Loftus Versfeld but went on to win the league.
On Wednesday night, they let in three against Maritzburg in a display of calamitous defending, but scoring five at the other end negated the deficiencies.
The league champions look as if they intend to play a much more expansive game under new coach Steve Komphela than they did when Stuart Baxter was in charge. But, in order to do so, they will need to sort out the defending, the space they leave when they lose possession and be superfit.
But, if Komphela gets it right, it will be exciting to watch and difficult to contain for opponents.
Chiefs’ march to the last championship came after a rousing start to the season in combination with a stuttering beginning for Sundowns, who were then defending champions.
Sundowns have already said they are looking for a much more positive start this time round, but being knocked out at home in midweek by Bloemfontein Celtic in cup competition immediately applies unnecessary pressure. Their opening game against Platinum Stars on Saturday night is also an assignment fraught with danger.
Overshadowed by continental efforts
Pirates will need a Herculean effort to come anywhere near to championship success – not for a lack of quality in a talent-laden squad but just because their opening months of the league campaign is overshadowed by their efforts to win continental honours.
The gruelling schedule they have already gone through and still face as they seek to become the first South African club to win the African Confederation Cup is a massive drain on their resources and major distraction on the domestic front.
But none of their fans will begrudge them falling behind in the PSL chase if they win the prestigious African trophy.
Wits are the mystery package and the team most secretly fear. Gavin Hunt’s credentials as a championship winning coach are well established, and since taking over at Wits he threatened to add another winners’ medal to his collection, only to see his side fold like a frigid poker player at the end of the season.
New signings like Mozambican international Dominguez (Elias Pelembe) and Daine Klate are astute buys that may carry them over the threshold this time.
SuperSport are also clever players and also have a coach who knows what it takes to win a title. Gordon Igesund has been on the bench of a top flight club for 30 years now, but key for his club is whether Jeremy Brockie continues to find the net or proves a one-season wonder.
Saturday marks the league kick-off, but Pirates and SuperSport only play their opening game on Tuesday because the Buccaneers have a Confederation Cup group game on Saturday against CS Sfaxien of Tunisia.