DURBAN – Pity the punters because even if the Telkom Knockout final is played on paper, making a call between Bidvest Wits and Bloemfontein Celtic at the Princess Magogo Stadium in KwaMashu tonight will be a lottery.
On the pitch the sides display similar tactical discipline and off it the statistics offer something for both sides to draw hope from.
This season Celtic have surprised, defying early predictions of being relegation material by occupying a mid-table spot in the league table.
New Serbian coach Veselin Jelusic has been credited with the transformation at the club that last term battled relegation.
On the flip side Wits, as defending league champions, have had a poor start to the season, save for their run to this final. They languish at the foot of the standings with two wins from 11 league outings.
Reading much into that would be folly, said veteran defender Bongani Khumalo. “When you’re in a cup final it’s not about how you play it. It’s about winning it. From there we can focus on the league and getting points to move in the right direction.”
Wits are back to full strength, notably in defence where Nazeer Allie and Buhle Mkhwanazi’s return from injury restores last season’s championship backline. That should go far in arresting their defensive slide.
In attack Malawian forward Gabadinho Mhango’s completion of a six-match ban gives Wits extra bite, besides the personal motivation of turning out against his former employers. His ability to play as the main striker, or wide, means coach Gavin Hunt can deploy a three-pronged attack with Amr Gamal and James Keene.
The arrival of Jelusic has helped Celtic develop a greater fighting spirit. They already boasted a decent defence last season, when they conceded 28 times. Lack of scoring was their undoing. Now too they average less than a goal per game, but they are able to grind out results.
The signing of Roggert Nyundu and Ndumiso Mabena this season lends their frontline experience, and lessens the burden on attacking midfielder Jackie Motshegwa, who is often their key to unlocking defences.
“What is helping us this season is that we are fighting for each other, praying together, and the friendship we have built among ourselves is that of brotherhood,” said goalkeeper and captain Patrick Tignyemb.
“The coach and technical team are not putting pressure on us, instead they are constantly reminding us to continue playing with tactical discipline and converting our chances. Whilst Wits have good players, we will be able to match them on the day. This is because there is huge self-belief reigning in the team.”
On paper the Students hold a significant advantage, with eight wins against their rivals in 10 cup clashes. One match was drawn and Celtic won once.
There are however a few statistics that Celtic can draw inspiration from. In seven of the past eight editions they bombed out in the first round.
When they got past the first hurdle, in 2012/13, they went all the way and beat Mamelodi Sundowns to lift the trophy. That triumph was recorded in Durban, and once again the city is the host.
An extra psychological boost for Celtic is that they already got the better of the Students this term, beating them 1-0 in the league. courtesy of a goal from Nyundu.