In the end, the culmination of the campaign came much quicker than anticipated and Mamelodi Sundowns are champions again, two matches before the completion of the league fixtures.
In a season of marked inconsistency they stood out as a beacon and, ultimately, were head and shoulders above the rest. They were crowned champions on Wednesday night after they moved out of the reach of challengers Bidvest Wits and on to a 10th league title since their first one in 1988.
The emphatic nature of their 3-0 thumping of relegation-threatened University of Pretoria contrasted with the tepid showing all of their supposed challengers.
For Sundowns, again the catalyst for success was a run of form at the right time, putting together a sequence of 18 unbeaten games in all domestic competitions, from a 3-2 win over Ajax Cape Town in September up to last month’s loss at home to Bloemfontein Celtic.
This kind of run is a proven recipe and no other side was able to match them in churning out the results week after week. Sundowns’ last two championship successes came in similar circumstances and with the same guiding principle.
Sundowns romped to the league title in 2007 – when Gordon Igesund was coach – on the back of 11 successive wins, starting in January 2007 with a 4-0 win over AmaZulu and ending near the end of April when Silver Stars beat them 2-0 away. In between Sundowns were victorious over Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows in successive matches – a hat-trick of success against the “Soweto three”.
Seven years later, Pitso Mosimane’s side came one game short of beating the record, putting together a 10-match winning streak that took them from a significant point deficit to successfully overtake Chiefs.
Consistent team selection was not Mosimane’s original vision, persuading club president Patrice Motsepe to part with millions of rands to put together a large pool of talent to challenge on all fronts.
But the reality was a long way from the theory, and Sundowns never attempted the rotation they had intended. Mosimane never had the appetite to chop and change his starting line-up and, once they went on a winning run, he rarely deviated from selection.
This season, in particular, he has kept faith with the same starting line-up, being rewarded with goals by allowing Colombian import Leonardo Castro time to find his feet and seeing the combination with Khama Billiat and Keegan Dolly develop into a consistent match winner.
When Bongani Zungu suffered serious injury in January, the midfield continue to tick over with proficiency thanks to Hlompho Kekana, who should be voted Player of the Season.
Zungu is now going to Portugal but, for the rest, Sundowns have the makings of a line-up that can continue to dominate – helped by the fact the rest of the field in the 16-team Premier Soccer League remain deficient in many of the basics of the game, not least the art of scoring goals.
Next year they will try again to do better in the African Champions League. “The reality is we are going to have to pick what we target next season,” said Mosimane.
“[In recent weeks] all the things were mixed. We played in three different competitions in seven days and we lost out in the Champions League, followed immediately by Orlando Pirates in the Nedbank Cup and we lost that match. It looked like we were wobbling but in reality we had 10 out of 12 points in the league. I wanted to have this league wrapped up as quick as I could.”
And his wish was granted.