The run-in: Who’s hot and who’s not as season nears its end
It seems like the 2020-21 Premier Soccer League campaign has flown over us like those military fighter jets that the bigspending governments put out on display for what they deem auspicious occasions.
It was late in October that a blockbuster fixture between defending league champions Mamelodi Sundowns and the previous season’s runners up, Kaizer Chiefs, was one of the six games that got us under way at an empty FNB Stadium.
Empty because of the “new normal” under which every sporting event in SA and beyond is being conducted after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was in that opening match that Peter Shalulile, who jointly won the top scorer award with Orlando Pirates’ Gabadinho Mhango last season, helped his new team Sundowns demonstrate their intentions.
Playing against a Chiefs side that was clearly still mourning losing the league title in the last 30 minutes of the 2019-20 season, Shalulile opened the scoring with a typical striker’s finish, taking advantage of a goalkeeping error from Itumeleng Khune to fire in his first goal at Sundowns for a 37thminute lead. Another new Sundowns signing Kermit Erasmus added a second before reigning Footballer of the Season Themba Zwane completed a 3-0 rout from the spot.
The Namibian and indeed his team, which is gunning for an unprecedented fourth successive league title, has never looked back.
In total, Shalulile has scored 10 goals in the DStv Premiership and provided six assists and now looks likely to succeed Zwane as SA’s league Footballer of the Season. The 27-year-old’s scoring feats and his overall contribution to his team have not gone unnoticed by other clubs in the world.
About a month ago Shalulile was linked with joining the coach who signed him for Sundowns, Pitso Mosimane, at Egyptian giants Al Ahly.
This week Russian club and regular participants in the Uefa Champions League, Lokomotiv Moscow, were said to be ready to table a lucrative offer for the nippy striker.
But to be fair, the Sundowns juggernaut has not only been about Shalulile. Yes, Sundowns have not lost a single league match when he was present, but co-coaches Manqoba Mngqithi and Rulani Mokwena, who had little time to adjust themselves to the head coaching role after Mosimane’s hasty departure in October, have done really well in maintaining the team’s standard.
Mokwena, however, has never hidden the importance of having Shalulile in his side.
“It humbles us to have a player like Peter Shalulile because when you have him on the pitch, he injects a lot of energy into our game.”
The sentiments are shared by Mngqithi and Sundowns’ senior coach Steve Komphela, who will do all they can to keep the striker at the club.
Unlike some previous seasons where there was no clarity even in the final round of matches where the title was heading, Sundowns can win their 11th league title in the PSL era with a couple of games to spare as those pretending to challenge them may well cancel each other out in the remaining few matches.
As things stand, Sundowns can win the title with 63 points, yet they can get to 69 if they win all their five remaining matches, including the one against TS Galaxy at the Mbombela Stadium today which will see the Brazilians opening a seven-point gap over second-placed AmaZulu FC, if they win.
It was never envisaged that KwaZuluNatal clubs AmaZulu and Golden Arrows, alongside newcomers Swallows FC, would be the ones challenging Sundowns.
Orlando Pirates and their Soweto rivals Chiefs were seen with a chance, especially after the departure of Mosimane, who had kept them at bay in the past three seasons.
But under the German coach Josef Zinnbauer, the Buccaneers have struggled for consistency and the only better position they’re likely to get if they collect all the remaining 15 points, is second spot. Bucs can get to 60 points but the tricky part is that they’ll have to beat Benni McCarthy’s Usuthu in one of those five encounters still on their plate.
It all points to Sundowns strolling to yet another league title as their chasers fight for the crumbs that become a spot in the Caf Champions League for second place and another in the Caf Champions League for finishing third.
Like Sundowns’ path to the league title, straight relegation seems like a foregone conclusion with Black Leopards unable to lift themselves off the bottom. Lidoda Duvha’s 3-0 defeat to Pirates in midweek means they can still reach 30 points and possibly survive. But the difficult part is that the Limpopo club will have to beat fellow strugglers Chippa United, Chiefs, Cape Town City and Bloemfontein Celtic. They’ll be lucky to add two points to their pathetic 18, but miracles do happen in football.
A tussle that is likely to ensue and get everyone’s attention is that of avoiding finishing in the 15th spot, which means playoffs to avoid relegation playing against the two GladAfrica teams that finish second and third and who will be seeking promotion to the big time.
Even ninth-placed Chiefs with 29 points and just five points clear of Chippa, who are currently 15th, can be dragged into this scramble. Baroka FC, who denied Chiefs the league title last season when they held them to a 1-1 draw to avoid going to relegation/promotion playoffs, Celtic, Stellenbosch FC, Maritzburg United and Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila are in a similar position to Chiefs.
They’ll all want to keep Chippa on the 15th spot as going to the playoffs with the hungry GladAfrica teams can be dicey.
So, isn’t it rather ironic that this season’s more attractive finish is not only that of teams challenging for the league title and fighting relegation, but also of teams that include last season’s runners-up, that will be wanting to dodge the PSL’s useless playoffs? That’s PSL football for you.