Maritzburg miracle thunders on

In the latest stop on their successful expedition to the Nedbank Cup semifinals, Maritzburg United displayed much of what they have used to harvest success this season.

Literally from the first whistle, they drove at Bloemfontein Celtic, spreading disorientation among an unsettled defence. Lebohang Maboe had the sobriety to capitalise and cut to his left, leaving two would-be blockers flat-footed, before shrewdly delivering the ball to the far corner.

That determination was extended to the end of the game after Jacky Motshegwa equalised for Phunya Sele Sele, with Maboe almost immediately playing in Andréa Fileccia behind the defence for the Belgian to take the game home.

The two attackers, along with standout player Siphesihle Ndlovu, have bred a winning attitude in the Team of Choice. It’s one that has propelled them to 10 victories so far this league season — third-best in the league — and that will see them achieve their highest points total in club history.

Despite dropping points this week, an improvement on last season’s seventh place will still be highly expected in Maritzburg.

“It will be a fantastic season if we end in sixth position,” coach Fadlu Davids told the Mail & Guardian. “Last season we ended seventh and 40 points is the highest total for the club, and of course anything better than that would be a fantastic season for the club, the best ever in its history.”

This week saw the end of what was becoming a momentous winning streak for Maritzburg. After losing to Orlando Pirates at the beginning of February, the club would go undefeated for seven games in all competitions, winning six of them. Bidvest Wits would be the team to have the pleasure of sticking out a leg to bring the run to a halt on a chilled Tuesday night in Johannesburg.

The travelling side, this time, had to experience the anguish of having a late equaliser cancelled out. It’s a manner of losing that left Davids clearly unimpressed.

“It was quite a physical game from the Bidvest side,” he said.

“They came there with a very physical side to stop Ndlovu, Maboe, Fileccia. I was a bit afraid that we could have had a couple of broken legs on the night with the slippery conditions as well. [There were] a couple of yellow cards which I thought could have been red. It was two set pieces that we conceded, which I was disappointed by. I think a draw would have been a fair result but, ja, it was the set pieces which made the difference.

“It’s disappointing to end the run that we’ve been on — six wins and one draw before last night. It’s disappointing it ended that way, especially the way it did, by conceding a set piece late in the match.”

Both Davids and United have amassed excited reviews this season. The coach in particular has been credited with bringing the right to dream to the KwaZulu-Natal town. But the former forward would prefer to confirm a top eight finish and go from there.

“Our targets remain the same: to secure the top eight position. Four points I think, that should do it. And then see how many games are left to be able to pick up as many points after that as possible. We don’t want to be thinking too far ahead — we just want to get those four points as soon as possible.”

Davids was speaking from Cape Town on Wednesday, where he had flown straight from Johannesburg. Although the extended time on the road wouldn’t be a preference, he’ll likely view an extra few days in the Mother City as an opportunity to get ready for their weekend fixture.

Maritzburg come up against Cape Town City on Saturday evening in a game of growing importance for the state of the top half of the table. Positions three to eight are looking increasingly clustered and Davids is eager to put some distance between his team and Benni McCarthy’s.

“They’re a fantastic footballing side,” he said, looking ahead to the game. “Benni McCarthy has to get a lot of credit for the way they play. They have a quality side assembled by the owner, John Comitis. We expect a tough game. Yes, they’ve dropped off the pace a little bit now towards the end, but they’re still there fighting for a top four, top three position. It’s a crucial game.”

Consistent performances have seen Davids (36) and McCarthy (40) stand out as the most promising young coaches in the South African game. Both have also created line-ups that have sought to challenge the hegemony of the PSL. The similarities end there for Davids.

“There’s similarities in that respect, but there’s huge differences in the squads,” Davids said. “I think they’ve got a far bigger squad than us. We are also mostly made up of youngsters. In terms of young coaches, yes, but hugely different squads. They have players signed from Europe to assemble a squad to perhaps be in the top four. We have promoted a lot of players, bringing the average age of the squad down; the youngest in the PSL — an average of 23.”

His opposite number on Saturday, McCarthy, has not been deprived of headlines in his honour over the past year or so. Referee disagreements and disputes with fellow coaches mean he is never far from the media’s mind. It’s not something that bothers Davids, who expressed his reverence for the former Bafana striker.

“He’s very honest; that’s what you’re always going to get. I admire him for that — always speaking his mind, telling it exactly like it is. He’s done wonders with the team so far and you’ve really got to give him credit for that. A lot of people are not giving him the credit he deserves but it’s unbelievable the way they play, despite losing some of their key players.”

A chunk of respect may travel with Davids to the Mother City, but he’ll ensure posturing has a firm seat on the bench as he closes in on a wedge of PSL history.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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