It’s a tale of three provinces in the Premier Soccer League’s relegation battle. Any one of four teams could potentially join Platinum Stars in saying cheers to the country’s top division.
The crusade to dodge 15th is the only life-and-death struggle that remains heading into the final weekend of the league.
The indomitable Sundowns have already secured their status as champions, and their would-be challengers, Orlando Pirates, can’t be nudged from second. Dikwena are nailed to the bottom and the subsequent fate of automatic relegation. All that’s left then is to finalise the top eight and the identity of the final play-off contender.
Highlands Park bulldozed their way through the National First Division and can count on top-flight football next season. In their distant wake, Black Leopards and Jomo Cosmos rose to second and third respectively, which means that they will duel with the second-from-last PSL side in a post-season mini-league. Ajax Cape Town, SuperSport United, Polokwane City and Baroka FC are at risk of filling that position. The latter Limpopo outfit, however, need three different results to go against them if they’re to take the tumble.
The story reads differently, and in more complex prose, for the Western Cape strugglers. Currently slouching in that dreaded 15th spot, Muhsin Ertugral’s men need a win to raise their status. They take on a Kaizer Chiefs side that’s probably still suffering from a Moses Mabhida hangover but unwilling to relinquish third — and also CAF Confederation Cup football — to Maritzburg United. Ertugral will secretly breathe a sigh of relief that he welcomes the Glamour Boys to the Cape Town Stadium — his side have been truly horrid on the road and those travails are largely what have opened the door to their dangerous situation. Amakhosi will rely on their significant Mother City support to mitigate that advantage.
Hanging over the on-field battle is the cloud of the Tendai Ndoro matter. Ndoro is accused of violating Fifa regulations by playing for three clubs in one season.
Various outcomes could still result, including as many as 10 points being docked from the Cape Town side, a result that could even see them plunge below Dikwena. Even the more likely punishment of three points will see them doomed. The PSL has promised to expedite the process in light of the play-off and Ertugral will hope to keep it out of his players’ consciousness for this weekend at least.
A giant on the precipice
“I suppose for the neutral it’s an exciting weekend coming up,” said Andre Arendse. “There’s all sorts of action, especially in the relegation zone.” The former Bafana shotstopper is not among the neutrals.
Now a goalkeeper coach at SuperSport United, he has watched from the sidelines as his club has flirted with relegation for much of the season. It’s a position that is wholly unfamiliar to the three-time PSL champions, who last year made it to the CAF Cup final. That same success, however, was equally a blow to Matsatsantsa, who were denied the privilege of a proper pre-season.
“The long season that we’ve had and the trips we’ve had to make into Africa, our CAF Cup campaign, didn’t help our cause,” Arendse said. “We didn’t have an off-season to give our players the rest they needed. We were lucky enough to go to the final and that was great in its own right … but it’s certainly taken its toll on us.”
SuperSport take on Baroka on Saturday afternoon. Three points against their fellow relegation stragglers will confirm survival and an end to a sordid couple of months for the club. Arendse revealed that training had been intensified over the past two weeks to achieve that goal.
“First and foremost, we are pleased to have our destiny in our own hands,” he enthused. “If we win the game, we are safe and that’s the underlying factor for us. There’s been lots of positive moves leading up to this game and that’s a pleasing thing for us. We’re very confident in what the players can do this weekend.”
The previous run of poor form cost coach Eric Tinkler his job at the beginning of March. Kaitano Tembo stepped in after the Bafana legend walked away and will hope to confirm the escape with a victory. Arendse acknowledged that the improvement hasn’t been drastic but may just be enough: “Not to a large extent, because then we would be out of the relegation zone, but there definitely has been a turnaround of fortunes.”
The fact that Matsatsantsa and Baroka are also on the verge of the top eight is an incredible advert for the competitiveness of the league.
Six teams have confirmed their places but two spots are being vied for by five teams. Golden Arrows, Chippa United, Bloemfontein Celtic, Bidvest and AmaZulu will head into the final weekend hoping to steal a spot in the MTN8. The knockout competition offers R8-million in prize money and is a huge incentive.
As things stand, SuperSport are only three points away from eighth place. The complexion of the league table, with only seven points separating fifth and 14th place, demonstrates how no team can be considered a pushover.
“The league has got a lot tougher,” said Arendse. “Clubs and coaches have been able to assess opposition teams and have been able to put out game plans more effectively. You can’t really say this is an easy team, or that’s an easy game any longer.”
Although the level of competitiveness might make life harder, Arendse and any other professional would acknowledge that it’s a sign of great progress for the South African game. We have our champions but the last weekend still has many thrills to offer.