Cape Town — After losing their clean sheet record in the midweek Tshwane Derby, the good vibes of getting the monkey off their back could free up Mamelodi Sundowns to play like champions again.
Against cross-town rivals SuperSport United on Wednesday, Sundowns surrendered goals for the first time in 13 DStv Premiership matches dating back to the end of last season. The match, their 11th this season, ended in a two-all draw after Sundowns led 2-0 at one stage.
Rhulani Mokwena, the Sundowns co-coach, responded to the stalemate by saying: "We just soldier on, it’s still a long season. The good thing the monkey is of our back now."
Sundowns return to action on Saturday afternoon when they host Sekhukhune United, the surprise package of the Premiership, at the Absa Tuks Stadium (start 3.30pm). Sekhukhune, after back-to-back wins, are in third place on the latest standings and seven points adrift of log-leaders Sundowns after 11 matches.
The unbeaten Sundowns have drawn their last two outings and not been showing their form that made them the all-conquering team that have now won the Premiership for four consecutive seasons. They have been held to consecutive draws by SuperSport and Cape Town City. Sekhukhune, on paper, is a better team than the last two mentioned sides and must have a sense that the unbeaten log-leaders are vulnerable.
The former Kaizer Chiefs stalwart defender Willard Katsande, Zambian goalkeeper Toaster Nsabata and Ghanian midfielder/defender Edwin Gyimah have been the backbone of Sekhukhune as they made their way up the standings. They bring loads of experience for Sekhukhune and will test the champions.
Mokwena has admitted that the team have not been impressive of late and is concerned about conceding turn-overs.
“We were never performing (against SuperSport)," said Mokwena. "We played far too fast. We had no control of the game, and it did not give a good feeling when you turn possession away.
“We cannot talk about not conceding any more. So that is probably a good thing because the pressure is off the players.”
The pressure of keeping a clean sheet may not be prevalent any longer, but there are a host of other milestones that may weigh heavily on the minds of players and coaching staff.
At the rate Sundowns have been collecting points this season, they are in the running to beat their record of 71 points for a season. They achieved 71 in the 2015/16 season with a runaway margin of 14 points.
The last remaining record on offer at this stage of the season is for the most wins. Sundowns, with 22 wins in the 2015/16 season, are record holders.
One player has that caught the eye of late at Sundowns is the skilful left-footed attacking midfielder Neo Maema. Mokwena has been singing his praises and feels he will become an integral part of the team.
"Neo comes in with the dynamism and the ability to use the left foot very well," said Mokwena.
"He has got a lot of confidence to strike the ball from range. He’s also learning a lot of new things.
"It was good to see the ball that he played for the assist, with that dink over the top, which is something that we have been working on.
"He’s young, energetic, dynamic and he works very hard on the pitch. He’s a very exciting player that’ gives his heart and soul to Mamelodi Sundowns.
"I’m sure that the supporters are happy with his performances. The challenge now is for him to find consistency and to be able to continue contributing towards the goals, whether it is assists or goals scored.
"The mentorship that he receives from people like Themba Zwane and Sibusiso Vilakazi is important. They assist and guide him.”