JOHANNESBURG - Sleepy Rustenburg, which is a stone's throw from Platinum Stars’ base in Phokeng, awakened a spirit that could haunt Dikwena on Wednesday night at FNB Stadium in their clash with Orlando Pirates.
The Buccaneers’ left-back, Innocent Maela, credits the club’s pre-season camp in Rustenburg for his seamless transition to the first team and the transformation of Pirates’ defence from a porous bunch to the best defensive unit in the team which have played seven rounds.
The 25-year-old, who returned on loan from the now-defunct Thanda Royal Zulu, has played every minute of those seven matches.
“I didn’t think that I would play this much when I returned to Pirates,” Maela said. “The coach (Milutin Sredojevic) has shown a lot of belief in me. He told me that if I focus and work hard, I can start games."
Like any newcomer to a club of Pirates' stature, Maela would have been happy to gradually establish himself.
"The plan at first was just to be a part of the first team, learn as much as I can from the quality players we have and then make the most of every little chance I get. Being given a chance to play so many games is more than I expected and I am grateful. The belief the coach has shown in me has boosted my confidence and made me dream even bigger.”
The winless Dikwena, who are rooted at the bottom of the table, will try to dent that confidence.
Pirates are likely to be without Happy Jele, who suffered a knock on his Achilles tendon. Jele and Ntsikelelo Nyauza are the only familiar faces in a new-look back five that has consistently featured Maela, right back Mthokozisi Dube and Wayne Sandilands in goal.
But those five players haven’t looked like they are still getting used to each other. They have fared better than the defence that saw Pirates ship in 40 goals in their worst performance in the PSL era.
Maela and company have only conceded four goals in seven games, seven less than the 11 goals Pirates conceded in their first seven league matches last season.
“I wasn’t there last season, I don’t know what they weren’t doing that we are doing this season,” Maela said. “What I do know is that this season, we’ve bonded well and we're strong as a unit. We are brothers. We are family. We work for each other. To me, that could be the biggest difference.
"The pre-season camp laid the foundation for that to happen. We tried a number of combinations. It is showing now. To the people out there, the defence is new but to us it is something we have been doing since the pre-season camp in Rustenburg.”
The versatile Abbubaker Mobara should slot in at centre back to fill the void left by Jele. As the club’s deputy captain, he will lead the Bucs at the back and help them remain frugal in giving away goals. Mobara and Maela are similar in the sense that they don’t play with much fanfare but get the basics right and they made a seamless transition to the club’s first team.
“What helped me the most was the pre-season camp we had. It was solid,” Maela said. “The hospitality from the team was amazing. It helped me to have confidence going into the start of the season and made it easier for me to settle into the team.”