JOHANNESBURG – Bidvest Wits were pushed to the limit to finally break the hoodoo Free State Stars have over them with a 4-2 victory in the Telkom Knockout on Saturday night.
It took the deft foot of Egyptian forward Ahmed Amr Gamal and James Keene lob in extra time to help the Clever Boys end a four-match losing streak to the Bethlehem-based in this competition.
The last two of those eliminations came in the last 16 in 2015 and 2016, which meant that Wits started on a psychological back-foot against a club that had nothing to lose, while the Students had everything to lose with a bad result.
Wits coach Gavin Hunt welcomed back goalkeeper Darren Keet, a key member of the club’s league-winning defence and the Goalkeeper of the Season, who hadn’t played in their disappointing start due to a knee injury.
The Clever Boys needed all the ammunition at their disposal against Ea Lla Koto, whom they struggle to beat, especially in this tournament.
Wits were eager not to be knocked out by Stars at this stage for a third successive year.
The hosts took lead through Bongani Khumalo, who headed home Gerald Phiri’s free kick.
But Stars were quick to respond through a thunderbolt from Thabo Maphakisa outside the box.
That goal stunned Wits, and for a few seconds, thoughts of another loss to Ea Lla Koto crossed their mind, especially with how Stars defended – forming a thick block that tried to suffocate the Clever Boys.
Wits had to be smart in trying to open up that resolute defence, and Gamal had the answer.
He tormented Stars with his positive approach, clever runs and ability to pierce them open with his touches.
He was let down by not having enough support in the box, which left him stranded and Stars could frustrate him.
But he didn’t lose his cool nor spirit.
Gamal was composed to put Wits ahead going into halftime by converting the penalty the hosts won after Bangaly Keita held the ball in the box.
He was also calm under pressure to score in the 95th minute after Siphelele Mthembu took the match into extra time.
Hunt brought James Keene just before the hour mark to give Gamal more support and allow him to roam freely without the demands of also being the main centre forward.
Stars didn’t lie down, but took the game to the reigning South African champions as Sinethemba Jantjie used his skill and pace to keep Wits on their toes.
The longer the match dragged with just one goal separating these two teams, the more confident the visitors became.
Stars were rewarded with that pressure after Reeve Frosler and Nazeer Allie collided with Jantjie inside the box.
Mthembu, just as he did in the league fixture in Bethlehem, scored in the 75th minute from the penalty spot to make it 2-2.
Both teams still had enough legs to carry them into extra time as their line-ups had one eye on their league fixtures in midweek, which saw them rest some players.
Wits needed the win the most after sheepishly giving away the MTN8 and making a mess of their Absa Premiership title defence.
This victory, along with their league win over Baroka FC, gave the Milpark-based club a much-needed reprieve.
But they are still far from looking like the real deal they were in the last campaign.