Johannesburg – If there is a measure of solace after Bafana Bafana’s early exit from the African Nations Championship (Chan), it is that the Absa Premiership’s leading lights, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns, can go at each other full throttle at Loftus Stadium on Thursday night, without international pressures looming on the horizon.
A stellar fixture such as this deserved better than to be stuck in the middle of an international tournament, and while they may not admit it in public, Amakhosi and the Brazilians must be privately relieved that their international stars are back in the fold to stay, ahead of a battle for the title that promises to go down to the wire.
It remains to be seen how the psychological scars of an early Chan exit have affected the Chiefs and Sundowns’ Bafana players, or if fitness will rule any of them out of this evening’s clash.
Chiefs have already had a run-in with Bafana over an injury to goalkeeper and captain Itumeleng Khune, but after missing the Nigeria game on Sunday, it seems likely that he will be back for the Amakhosi on Thursday.
Bernard Parker is in such goalscoring form that it would surely be impossible for Stuart Baxter to rest him tonight, while the Chiefs coach perhaps has more tricky decisions to make with regard to central defender Tefu Mashamaite and winger Siphiwe Tshabalala.
Baxter must also decide whether to give new signing George Maluleka his debut in midfield this evening.
As for Sundowns, Pitso Mosimane has already felt the pinch of Chan, with midfielder Jabulani Shongwe picking up a groin injury before Bafana had kicked a ball. It remains to be seen if Shongwe has recovered in time for tonight’s game, while Mosimane will have to make a decision over Bryce Moon, Hlompho Kekana and Katlego Mashego, all back from Bafana duty.
Sundowns at least have a larger squad of quality players to fall back on, should the Bafana players be deemed not ready.
Cuthbert Malajila, for example, would be a more than suitable candidate to replace Mashego, while in midfield, Bongani Zungu and Teko Modise could stand in for Kekana and Shongwe.
Ironically, for all their squad power, it is Sundowns who rather stalled in their title campaign towards Christmas, allowing Chiefs to steal a march in the race for the title.
Mosimane’s side picked up just two points from their last three league games before the break, while Chiefs picked up maximum points from the equivalent amount of matches, extending their winning Absa Premiership run to six games.
The reigning champions have thus pulled five points clear of the Brazilians, and though Mosimane’s men do have a game in hand, an Amakhosi win would certainly create noticeable daylight between them and the Brazilians.
As such, the pressure is firmly on Sundowns at home to start the new year with a bang.
Another side under pressure to record a victory is Orlando Pirates, who travel to AmaZulu just a few days after a slightly embarrassing home defeat to SuperSport United.
The Buccaneers missed a host of chances to kill off Matsatsantsa, before eventually being sunk by a couple of sucker punches, and surely cannot afford similar profligacy in Durban this evening, as they seek to make up ground in the title race.
AmaZulu did nick a 1-0 win over Pirates in Orlando in the two sides’ first league game of the season, former Buccaneer Bongani Ndulula nicking a winner for Craig Rosslee’s side. Usuthu had a decent, if inconsistent first half of the season, though their away form was their main bonus, AmaZulu winning just two of their seven home league games thus far.