Upstarts now face real tests

Free State’s Luc Eymael has built his reputation this season by proving he has no issues mixing it up with the big boys. (Anesh Debiky, Gallo Images)

Free State’s Luc Eymael has built his reputation this season by proving he has no issues mixing it up with the big boys. (Anesh Debiky, Gallo Images)

The Nedbank Cup and Premier Soccer League are beginning to feel like different episodes of the same TV show. While we take a break from league football, we run into familiar storylines in the cup. Two resurgent teams denouncing a hegemony that would see the illustrious indefinitely reign.
Another side methodically dismantling that very resistance with every passing game. One wobbling giant scrapping to preserve their stature and respectability.

Maritzburg United and Free State Stars go into their respective semifinals knowing that much of the country would like Downs to travel to the Mother City on May 19 for a glamour final. Unfortunately for the hopefuls, Maritzburg coach Fadlu Davids and Free State’s Luc Eymael have built their reputations this season on proving they have no issues mixing it up with the big boys.

The Team of Choice sits third in the league after an exceptional few months, only interrupted by a loss to BidVest Wits during their trip to Johannesburg at the beginning of April. By the 47th minute against Baroka last weekend, Siphesihle Ndlovu had put Maritzburg 2-0 ahead to dismiss suggestions we were about to witness a reversal of form.

Davids has already earned inalienable praise this season and a final appearance will only embolden those singing it. In truth, it has been a mostly uncomplicated path to this point in the Nedbank Cup. A late Andrea Fillicia winner was needed to unlock a tight game against Bloemfontein Celtic in the last round but before that only lower-league opposition stood in the way — Royal Eagles and Moroka Swallows.

No such luck this time. Opponents Sundowns look almost unbeatable. Victory over Golden Arrows on Tuesday night pushed the PSL trophy further towards Loftus and coach Pitso Mosimane will be eager to make it a double.

In their previous league meeting of the season, in December, the Brazilians were run hard by the Team of Choice, only earning a home win thanks to a cut-in and intelligent finish by Percy Tau. Davids will know that keeping the slick dangerman quiet, along with Sibusiso Vilakazi, will be key to taking that next step.

Eymael, meanwhile, has transformed a side that escaped relegation by a hair on Victor Gomez’s head to one firmly in the top five. Like Maritzburg, the Nedbank Cup presents a tangible reward for a season’s worth of grind.

Free State Stars have also managed to dodge the big names, taking down Ubuntu Cape Town, Chippa United and Super Eagles en route to Saturday. Ea Lla Koto would hardly have been paralysed with fear either when drawn against Kaizer Chiefs. The Glamour Boys find themselves in a messy limbo, having collapsed in the league and unable to effect real change until the season’s close.

If the Soweto giants fail to show up to the big time, familiarly bland football could well see them tumble out.

Sundowns have the luxury of focusing on the Nedbank Cup this weekend while comforted by the reality that their campaign to conquer the league again is under control.

Orlando Pirates fans travelled to Loftus on Tuesday in anxious hope that the leaders would squander their game in hand. “Please stop them,” read the signs of a group.

Golden Arrows could do no such favours. A hoodwinked Zolani Nkombela could only stick out a foot in response to Vilakazi’s lethally fast turn. Ricardo Nascimento got the better of his staredown with Maximilian Mbaeva to bury the resultant penalty. Mosimane’s men didn’t show any signs of letting that lead slip and safely saw out the game.

“What’s important for tonight, people were a little bit nervous but the team has matured,” said Mosimane, praising their ability to exercise pragmatism in pursuit of a league title. “They can string passes and kill the game in possession of the ball. Possession for possession, not many people can do that.”

Victory earns the Brazilians a six-point advantage over the second placed-Buccaneers with three games to go. Given their superior goal difference, even two losses wouldn’t be enough to let the lead slip. Although Pirates’ own renaissance has been impressive, it’s probably safe to call this PSL season.

Luke Feltham

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