JOHANNESBURG - The plan for the Brazilians was to manage Free State Stars, but the plucky surprise package in the league race ended up managing Mamelodi Sundowns to steal a big point from the pacesetters.
Wednesday night's 1-1 draw ended Sundowns’ 11-match winning streak over Stars and also gave Ea Lla Koto confidence in their bid to finish in the top four.
Sundowns’ coach Pitso Mosimane has been talking about managing teams around them, playing conservatively so as not to lose to them.
They might have achieved that objective Wednesday night, stretching their lead at the top to five points, but there was an element of disappointment after referee Thando Ndzandzeka blew the final whistle.
The positive for Sundowns, apart from stretching their lead, was that life without Khama Billiat might not be that bad with Gaston Sirino slowly becoming the Tshwane side’s livewire.
Sirino turned on the magic that put defenders under a spell even though he still needs to work on his fitness to last 90 minutes.
The Uruguayan midfielder weaved his magic as Sundowns looked on course to continue their dominance over Stars who they haven’t lost to since 2011.
The 26-year-old, who joined Sundowns last month, showed intelligence, made clever runs and displayed spell-binding turns which are all qualities for a good playmaker.
Billiat also has those qualities along with a deft touch, but Sundowns might not benefit from them in the future should they fail to reach an agreement with the Zimbabwean to keep him in Chloorkop beyond the end of the season.
Sundowns’ negotiations with Billiat have been deadlocked, forcing the Brazilians to prepare for the worst case scenario – losing the inspirational Zimbabwean for free.
The league pacesetters signed Aubrey Ngoma to play on the flanks which would allow Sirino freedom to roam the field.
Sirino might have shown Sundowns what life after Billiat could look like, but the Uruguayan and Zimbabwean also showed how deadly they can be as a duo – combining well to torment Stars’ reinforced defence.
Billiat started the move that led to Sundowns taking the lead, creating space for himself with his skills before Sirino eliminated two defenders to create room for Percy Tau to slot the ball past Ali Sangare.
Sundowns’ fans have warmed up to Sirino so much that they objected to his substitution just after the hour mark.
While Sirino has made a seamless transition to his new home, Jeremy Brockie has struggled. The New Zealand forward has struggled to replicate the goal scoring form he had at SuperSport United, which led to coach Pitso Mosimane calling him a sniper.
At the moment Brockie is a misfiring water gun, and he hasn’t scored in the league since September.
His dry spell at Matsatsantsa a Pitori was due to him sulking with his proposed move to Sundowns stalling.
His goal-shyness on the yellow side of the country’s capital was firstly due to him getting to know his teammates, and now it’s because of the pressure to deliver that results.
Sundowns have managed to keep their place at the summit without Brockie’s goals because they have a potent attack that’s not reliant on one person being the go-to-guy for goals.
But not putting this match to bed when they had the chance came back to bite them as Siphelele Mthembu huffed and puffed to get the goal that helped them get a vital point.