JOHANNESBURG - Mamelodi Sundowns, the reigning Absa Premiership champions, will always buy more players to get even stronger, a Premier Soccer League coach said once.
Orlando Pirates coach Micho Sredojevic says they are ready for their fans to smell what they have been cooking behind closed doors during pre-season and Kaizer Chiefs have their own supporters worried that they have embarked on yet another rebuilding project. And so that sets the tone for the new 2018-19 season which kicks off on Saturday afternoon with a league clash between Sundowns and Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld in Tshwane.
The Brazilians are again among the favourites, this despite the departure of key players in Khama Billiat - who scored eight goals in 16 games in the previous campaign but is now at Naturena - as well as Percy Tau, the Footballer of the Season who joined Brighton & Hove Albion in England last month.
Of course they are a bit thin in attack given the pedigree and weight of those two players, but this is Sundowns. Their coach Pitso Mosimane appears to have already made a contingency plan and has Jeremy Brockie to still prove his worth. Yes, Sundowns always manage to get stronger and stronger. But their rivals will not want to be left behind.
Although the transfer market, to borrow from PSL chairman Irvin Khoza, is heavily “inflated” and almost “artificial” considering the value placed on players, clubs are still finding a way to try and improve their squads.
Pirates are one such outfit. The Buccaneers announced nine players in June - a mixture of those who were top performers at their previous clubs and some who, even though their ability can’t be doubted, mostly watched their teammates from the stands.
They didn’t stop there. Micho swelled up his backroom staff with a goalkeeper coach, a team of analysts and a finishing expert. That will certainly raise expectations for last season’s runners-up, who want to go toe-to-toe with Sundowns in the domestic league as well as on the continent in the CAF Champions League.
Already this campaign has been hyped up as a two-horse race between these two sides, but Chiefs will also want to be considered. Amakhosi, however, have made a rather underwhelming coaching appointment by replacing Steve Komphela with Giovanni Solinas, remembered from his time as Free State Stars mentor over two very brief stints.
It seems yet again like a rebuilding project with rumours that the Italian has already moaned about the size of the squad, the average age of the squad and the lack of quality players coming from the development side (as a result he has reportedly sent them back to train with the reserves).
Will Chiefs, again, depend on veterans Siphiwe Tshabalala (33) and Bernard Parker (32) to end their three-year trophy drought? Billiat has shown in the pre-season fixtures that he can be immense this season if he stays fit, but he will be exhausted by Christmas if he has to do all the hard work on his own.
Solinas also arrived days before the start of pre-season and has not been able to sit on the bench during warm-up matches because of work permit issues. He will take his place in the dug-out on Saturday at Loftus, but that could turn out to be a baptism of fire and the coach has already admitted that he would rather they have been pitted against the defending champions later on in the season.
It is then easier to predict the top three title contenders based on the business in the transfer window, previous form and general expectations. But who else could be considered dark horses or a surprise package? SuperSport United, Bidvest Wits, Free State Stars or Maritzburg United, last season’s fairytale story?
The curtain rolls up on topflight football on Saturday and all will be revealed. There will be much joy at the end of it and some heartache for others in the end. Do you want to put your money down on who will be the first coach to be sacked? Buckle up, football is back.