Teething Sundowns ready to bite

We have all become numb to Premier Soccer League (PSL) managers reciting their bland script when asked whether they’re in with a shout of winning the league.

The closest you’ll come to an admission of ambition is Gavin Hunt, who will happily brag that he always finishes in the top three. Kaitano Tembo is overly humble and sober. Steve Komphela would sooner deliver a postmodern critique of capitalism. Milutin Sredojević would be too busy convincing everybody he’s actually in charge. And no one would even bother asking Giovanni Solinas.

If there’s one man whose achievements leave him with no right to plead humble, however, it’s Pitso Mosimane.

“No, the race is between Pirates and Wits, as we speak, in my opinion,” he said from Sundowns’ Chloorkop training ground last week. “Pirates because they’re playing well, free-flowing. Wits because they have got big experience. The coach is experienced in winning the league; he has won it more than anybody else.

“Also, they prepared well preseason. He has had to change the team and it shows. He’s smart. They aren’t even playing Champions League so they’re fresh. In January they will be the team to match.”

Given that continental competitors have to play four games (two ties at home and away) before they even enter the group stage, Mosimane believes that hands the impetus to Hunt and his rested boys. Or at least that’s the mind game he has chosen to throw their way.

Is Jingles right to ring the death knell on his title chances thanks to a little travelling?

In truth, no one gifted with sense could write off Masandawana or describe them as underdogs of any breed. The squad is just too talented, too massive and too experienced to convince us that our Christmas bonus would be best spent on a BidVest Wits wager. In fact, your bookie will tell you that Sundowns remain the odds-on favourite in most shops.

Rather, what we have is an opportunity to watch Mosimane at his most cunning over the next few months.

“We are in the teething stages.”

That statement from the boss is correct. Having lost Percy Tau to Europe and Khama Billiat to Kaizer Chiefs, an element of raw talent that bamboozled teams on its own is no longer there. Instead, the club has accepted that a period of transition is inevitable.

So far it looks as though it has been navigated expertly. It began with the Brazilians proving they are still the premium destination for marquee players. Andile Jali has brought star power to what was already a galactico-filled central midfield, Lebohang Maboe is one of the most promising talents in the country and Phakamani Mahlambi has already proven that versatility comes packaged with his ability.

The side have not seen the net bulge with Mosimane’s desired regularity, but their record of 12 goals from 10 games is hardly below par. It’s all good news at the other end — six goals conceded ties them for joint best.

Any duo that is selected at the back from the pool of Ricardo Nascimento, Motjeka Madisha, Mosa Lebusa and even Wayne Arendse is capable of bringing in a sturdy feeling of security. That’s a rare luxury with their level of rotation; just look at Kaizer Chiefs. Having man giant Denis Onyango to bark orders helps to cultivate that consistency.

Sundowns’ biggest annoyance has been at home where, incredibly, a first win at Loftus was recorded against a soon-to-be managerless Free State Stars only last week.

“It’s tactical. A lot of teams sit back and we struggle to break down the reinforced defence, but that’s what happens,” Mosimane said to explain the backward home-away dynamic.

“When we play someone away then they’re playing in front of their supporters and they can’t sit back. They have to attack. So that gives us a little bit of space to attack and score goals.”

Most significantly, however, if you scroll your finger down the loss column of the PSL you will see only one row will have a fat zero, to borrow grade-five teacher slang. This is not a side that likes to lose (in the league).

Although it has lost in the lesser competitions, there’s the undeniable sense that the backroom staff know exactly when to rotate, when to rest and when to push.

Despite playing that match against Ea Lla Koto on Wednesday, Sundowns put in a full session on Thursday late morning; one that even included a full practice match lasting a little more than an hour. With two games in four days, that’s not a common tactic.

And yet it was impossible to tell in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Pirates. Micho’s men probably overshadowed the first half but fell off around the 70th minute. After Vincent Pule’s tired legs were withdrawn, they offered almost nothing.

Those in yellow, however, kept pushing until the end. One moment in the dying moments was particularly telling as Mahlambi almost pushed his way through the entire Bucs midfield on steam and momentum alone.

On another day and a different bounce, a fourth-quarter strike would have sealed a brilliantly managed 90-minute game plan.

This is why Mosimane is wrong, or at least wasn’t telling the truth about the Buccaneers being such huge favourites. He knows how to manage his deep reservoir of talent and get the best out of it in the games that matter, no matter the schedule rigours.

Always a fan of references to overseas teams and even other sports, Mosimane compared his approach in the challenging scenarios with that of Floyd Mayweather. The boxer retired undefeated despite never truly going on the attack. He knows that’s the game to play now.

Expect to see an extremely prudent, diligent but effective approach from his side in the coming weeks and months — possibly the evolution of the former Bafana coach himself.

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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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