Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What a difference a week makes

It might have been a bit too early to write off Orlando Pirates.

A win over University of Pretoria, coupled with Kaizer Chiefs’ draw with Bloemfontein Celtic, means Pirates are second in the Absa Premiership, just four points behind those pesky Amakhosi.
Pirates celebrate Andile Jali's penalty against AmaTuks
What a difference a week makes indeed.

Of greater significance to Pirates’ ever-demanding fans however will have been their team’s display.

It was, in the end, a very impressive performance by Bucs – one that’s left the Happy People hopeful of a third consecutive title.

But it was almost not that way.

AmaTuks had been the better team in the opening 25 minutes of last Sunday’s clash at Loftus. Dipsy Selolwane and his midfield cohorts had things under control while skilful left-winger Aubrey Ngoma was tormenting Pirates at every turn.

Ngoma, on loan from Pirates, has been one of the PSL’s finds of the season, and with gangly striker Mame Niang winning everything in the air, the Buccaneers looked in for a long, hard afternoon in the Pretoria heat.

Pirates were worryingly out of sorts.

There was little cohesion in their play with three distant sections – defence, midfield, and attack – visible even to an untrained eye. Moves constantly broke down and Collins Mbesuma cut an isolated figure upfront.

The system wasn’t working.

Onyekachi Okonkwo, deployed on the left of midfield, kept drifting in-field to where he’s more comfortable. Planned or not, this caused leftback Patrick Phungwayo to get dragged into midfield partly contributing to Tuks’s goal which came via a long ball down Pirates’ left-hand channel, catching Bucs out of shape at the back.

Tuks on the other hand had good progression in possession with Niang always looking to pull out to the right of attack to use his considerable height against the shorter Phungwayo.

However, injury to Thulasizwe Mbuyane on 20 minutes, after a clash of heads changed things; and Roger de Sa’s resulting introduction of Dane Klate was a masterstroke. Whereas Pirates had been disjointed before, they were more fluid with a much better shape and structure.
Can't stop the power!
Jali, Bucs' driving force
Oupa Manyisa was released into a freer role with Okonkwo moving in from the left flank into his more natural central midfield area alongside Andile Jali. This meant a more basic 4-2-3-1 for Bucs with Jali and Okonkwo dominant at the base of midfield and Manyisa expertly linking play. Sifiso Myeni was switched to the left-wing and his combination with Phungwayo, probably forged in their Bidvest Wits days, became an effective outlet.

With Pirates in better shape, the flow of possession for AmaTuks was negated and so was the danger of Niang who became more and more cut-off upfront.

Bucs did have the fortune of a gift from AmaTuks with Siyabonga Shoyisa misjudging the flight of the ball for Mbesuma’s equaliser. But from there it was one-way traffic with Pirates firmly on the front foot.

Myeni was a constant threat with his skill, Klate brought balance and the team’s movement was much improved.

The result was a second half of free-flowing football by Pirates, and two goals. The course of the match may have changed had Niang buried his header at 1-1, but the feeling was Pirates were the team in control of the destiny of the match.

The question now is what De Sa will do going forward. Playing with two natural wingers has been fundamental to Pirates’ success over the past two seasons. It gives width and balance to their play. Who does he leave out?

It’s a tricky conundrum De Sa now has to figure out – but that’s what coaches are paid to do.

The importance of home advantage

The last round of league action also showed us the importance of home advantage, something which perhaps isn’t yet taken as seriously in South Africa.

AmaTuks had been unbeaten at their Tuks Stadium and something has to be said about the familiarity a player feels when playing in the same arena. AmaTuks, at Loftus, certainly didn’t look the same bustling side that’s been seen at the Tuks Stadium this season.

Buccaneer Ecstasy...
Benni, Dane and Roi
Equally, the Orlando Stadium can be attributed to Pirates’ amazing run of success. It is little coincidence that the stadium’s opening and subsequent usage by Bucs has coincided with Pirates winning the Premiership twice. Last season the league was won on the basis of their remarkable home form. Bucs were unbeaten at home all season, winning 11 of 15 games.

The Orlando Stadium has become a fortress and is statistically the most difficult place to visit for a travelling team. Pirates collected 37 points there last season, seven more than Moroka Swallows – a decisive factor considering the league was won by two points.

This is in contrast to Mamelodi Sundowns whose woes last season rose from not doing well at home. Sundowns’ switch to Loftus was costly and it’s where their title challenge was derailed. In the end Johan Neeskens’ side ended up with the eighth best record in the league, picking up only 23 points at home – 14 less than Pirates.

This season Chiefs have won every game at Soccer City, their new designated home ground. In the past few years Amakhosi have province-trotted around South Africa, one overlooked reason as to why they’ve fallen short at vital moments in the league. Although Chiefs were the better team against Celtic in Port Elizabeth the final result does little to dispel that notion that playing at one ‘home’ stadium is of better service. Swallows can attest to this, they’ve have risen back into the big time on the back of the confidence gained at the Dobsonville Stadium.

Many factors can decide who wins the title, yes; but it should be remembered that the last five winners – SuperSport thrice and Pirates twice – have been amongst the best home records in each campaign.

It’s still early days in the Absa Premiership race, things can change weekly. However, ‘home’ form will always play a huge role in deciding the destiny of a league title.

Written on October 15


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