CAPE TOWN – Free State Stars are the 2018 Nedbank Cup champions after defeating Maritzburg United 1-0 in the competition’s finale at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday night.
The win secures the much-improved Free State club a place in next season’s CAF Confederations Cup and a hefty R7 million in prize money.
The victory was founded on Stars’ supreme organisation, and their attention to detail in the carrying out of a dour, yet highly effective game plan.
Maritzburg played their part in an absorbing final – but in the end, their inability to find any cutting edge in attack proved to be their downfall.
After going into the break at 1-0 down, the KZN side dominated second-half possession, but Stars battled bravely and put in the effort to ensure they lifted the trophy at the end of the 90 minutes.
With all the talk of crowd attendance in the build-up to the game, because the final involved two unfashionable teams, and it being the first time a final was being played at the Green Point venue, around 20 000 turned up for the occasion.
And more importantly, they played their part in creating a fantastic atmosphere.
Right from the opening whistle, it was evident that this wasn’t going to be an open, flowing football match.
A cagey, tentative beginning eventually led to a tight, tense encounter. To be fair to both teams, the fact that there wasn’t all that much with regard to scoring attempts early on was due to their superb structure.
Both Maritzburg and Stars were played with great shape, and both were difficult to break down.
Space was at a premium as players closed each other down quickly and effectively, making for a match that was always ripe for the counter-attack.
In the opening 45 minutes, Stars’ burly striker Siphelele Mthembu’s power game was proving tough for Maritzburg’s defenders to handle.
But the KZN side were having the better of things on the break. Lebogang Maboe, Siphesihle Ndlovu and Deolin Mekoa provided a few threatening moments, but nothing that was all that troubling for the Stars defence.
Maritzburg looked have grabbed control towards the end of the first half, with Belgian forward Andrea Fileccia going close on two occasions and captain Bevan Fransman nearly scoring with flick-on header, only to be foiled by a great save from Stars goalkeeper Thela Ngobeni.
But as it always is in football, when a team is at its strongest, that is also the time when it is at its most vulnerable.
As Maritzburg pushed forward with more confidence, they left themselves short at the back – and Stars made them pay.
A minute before the break, after a swift counter-attack, Sthembiso Dlamini dashed into space and finished with aplomb to give the Free State side a 1-0 lead.
The KZN club had no choice but to change things and go for broke in the second half. Central defender Rushine de Reuck was substituted, and Maritzburg played with three at the back.
The change in formation allowed them more impetus in attack. But, at the same time, because Stars had the advantage, they didn’t have to risk; they sat in, played a lot deeper, kept it compact and made sure they had numbers behind the ball.
Because of this, no matter how hard Maritzburg tried, for all their huffing and puffing, they just couldn’t get through the resolute defence of the Free Staters.
But, while Stars take the trophy, both teams deserve credit, not just for participating in such a high profile final, but also for their performances in the league this season. Maritzburg and Stars have been two of the more exciting sides this season – and for that, they can both take a bow.