You have to love the idiosyncrasies of South African club football. Two league games into the season and we’ve already reached a pressure point — a moment to kick on or scratch off a viable trophy on the list.
The MTN8, which begins this weekend, is a just reward for its participants, who forced their way into the top half of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) last season.
Sure, it’s not the top priority for most clubs, but neither is it a throwaway excursion. It’s a trophy, it’s prize money, it’s momentum.
As Kaizer Chiefs right-back Ramahlwe Mphahlele explained, it’s not too pleasant to be watching it from the sidelines.
“It’s not nice because we’re missing one more trophy to compete for,” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now so we have to accept it: it’s in the past now. “It’s not a blessing in disguise. We really wanted to be in the top eight and compete and work on our game. It’s also a lot of money that the club’s losing out on.”
A possible R8-million to be exact. That’s not chump change — even for the most-supported side in the country. This is what the trophy means to the eight competitors.
Cape Town City vs Polokwane City
In Cape Town City’s case, winning the MTN8 last year was a tangible marker of the side’s continued progress. The Citizens have made a home for themselves in the league’s top half and at the beginning of every term look to go that little bit deeper.
It all went a bit crazy in their opener: Baroka’s ability to restore parity almost immediately after going two goals down is a sign of how wonky their defence can be. Likewise, a few touches of fortune in the following game were necessary to ensure Chris David’s seventh-minute, far-corner power drive was good enough to stand as the winner against Stellenbosch.
City desperately need the stability that is required for a sustained title challenge. Another run to the MTN8 final, beginning with a rare Newlands game against Polokwane City, would be the ideal way for them to develop a winning habit.
Their Limpopo opponents are themselves a team on the up. Polokwane built on their impressive fifth-place finish with successive 1-0 wins to begin the campaign. Although neither was infallible, Polokwane are getting the job done at the moment and will fancy their own chances of seizing the early opportunity to win a trophy.
Orlando Pirates vs Highlands Park
How Orlando Pirates approach their MTN8 opener will be interesting to see. Milutin Sredojević’s side have their minds fixed on one target: finishing top of the table. Will further knockout games be seen as more of a nuisance than anything else? Not so, according to captain Happy Jele.
“The ambition is to go to the last game of the competition,” he said in the lead-up to this weekend. “But the important part is to focus on the first game against Highlands Park.
“I think to get a silverware will serve as motivation for everyone in the team to do well in the season ahead because this one is only four games to play,” he added.
“We just have to focus on that and try to win it if we can but, like I said, the first thing is to focus on the first game because it’s very important.”
Owen Da Gama’s outfit are arguably in far greater need of a result for pure confidence’s sake. After an impressive campaign back in the top flight, the Lions of the North have struggled so far this time out. If not for a last-minute decision by Peter Shalulile to jump to life when everyone else went to sleep in Maritzburg last Friday to secure a draw, their place on the board would be looking awfully precarious.
Da Gama seems to relish the opportunity to play the underdog so a tie against the Buccaneers might be just what the team needs.
Mamelodi Sundowns vs Bloemfontein Celtic
Somehow, some way Bloemfontein Celtic are in this competition. Despite the club becoming a shambles, Steve Komphela quitting in embarrassing circumstances and a fanbase that is sick to death of all this drama — they miraculously scooped eighth place. Once more, all the signs of doom have been there. And once more, destiny has been defied.
After an annoying opening day loss, Siwelele demolished Golden Arrows 5-0. The result was so resounding that Komphela, now on the opposition bench, couldn’t resist having a jive with his old fans.
At this point, who knows who the hell Celtic are or what they’re capable of. A knockout meeting with the league champions seems like a good place to find out.
Assuming, of course, that Pitso Mosimane takes this one seriously. The Sundowns coach is a serial moaner when it comes to fixture congestion and with a historic 10th PSL medal on the cards for the club, he may be quite content to be knocked out early.
Bidvest Wits vs SuperSport United
Having made it to the past two finals, winning one, SuperSport United have made a habit of doing well in the MTN8. Their otherwise horrid 2017-18 season was proof of just what a boon this trophy can be.
Starting the league slowly, and on the back of a difficult off-season transfer wise, Matsatsantsa could use a lift right about now.
Similarly, Bidvest Wits were truly awful at home to Baroka in their second game. We all know coach Gavin Hunt despises mediocrity in his teams, so expect a freshly whipped line-up to take to the field on Sunday afternoon.
With both sides likely willing to scrap for the win, this could very well be the pick of the round for the neutral viewer.