There were contrasting debuts for some of AmaZulu’s players as the Durban side marked their return to big time football with a 1-0 Absa Premiership victory over Free State Stars at the King Zwelithini Stadium in uMlazi on Saturday.
Four yellow cards and a red, all flashed by referee Khulasande Qongqo in the first half, told of a physically tight battle that the home outfit edged after a second half penalty ended with an own goal by Stars goalkeeper Ali Sangare.
The sides could hardly wait for the season to get started, it seemed, as Togolese international defender Sadate Ouro-Akoriko earned the first red card of the league campaign in the 17th minute for a bruising challenge on Stars striker Allen-Dorian Nono.
It wasn’t the way Ouro-Akoriko would have wanted to make his second debut for the club he left three seasons ago after they got relegated. However he made an impact because Nono later went off injured, replaced by striker Siphelele Mthembu.
A few minutes earlier Gabonese forward Nono had received the first caution of the clash. Later Qongqo also booked Paulus Masehe, Katlego Mashego and Sinethemba Jantjie of Stars.
Besides the physicality the sides attempted to make a game of it, although with a high number of debutantes, especially for AmaZulu, the action lacked fluidity.
For the home side five players made their official debut, all of them defensively. Apart from Ouro-Akoriko, there was goalkeeper Boalefa Pule, left-back Simphiwe Mtsweni, right-back Thembela Sikhakhane and midfield anchor Michael Morton. The latter ended up playing in central defence next to captain Tapelo Nyongo in place of Ouro-Akoriko for the rest of the opening period.
His makeshift role in the heart of defence won him applause from the afternoon crowd who braved the chilly weather to take in AmaZulu’s return to top flight football after a two-year absence. Morton read the opposition’s moves well to intercept several attacking forays by the red brigade.
The occasional Bafana Bafana midfielder reverted to his usual midfield slot in the second half after Vukile Mngqibisa was sent in to fill Ouro-Akoriko’s position. Back in familiar territory Morton was even more effective and had a hand in Usuthu winning this opening fixture.
The midfield hard man displayed some finesse too when he slipped the ball through the legs of Stars midfielder Danny Venter upon resuming his midfield duty.
By then the green army had regained their fire, sensing a greater opportunity to win after Qongqo sent off Stars left-back Sifiso Mbhele midway through the half.
Morton was instrumental in driving his new side forward. Coming to Durban on loan from Supersport United in search of game time, he displayed that hunger with his industry.
Morton almost fashioned the opening goal from open play when he combined with striker Mabhuti Khenyeza to crack open the visiting defence. But Khenyeza had his shot blocked by Stars Ivorian goalkeeper Sangare.
The midfielder then played winger Ovidy Karuru through and he won the penalty which Nyongo took charge of. The captain slammed the ball against the post but it hit the back of Sangare and went in.