BETHLEHEM – With log leaders Mamelodi Sundowns yet again stuttering and suffering their sixth defeat of this Absa Premiership season, one of Free State Stars and Cape Town City entered the pitch knowing a win here can go a long way in establishing them as dark horses in the title race.
Home side Stars deployed a conservative approach, but got the job done 1-0 thanks to Harris Tchilimbou’s solitary strike seconds before the break – an unexpected goal that would have changed Cape Town City coach Benni McCarthy’s halftime team talk.
Like they did against Bidvest Wits away from home a week earlier in their opening game of 2018, Stars yet again played on the counter and hurt the visitors using their pacey wingers Sinethemba Jantjie and Thabo Maphakisa, who set up Tchilimbou for the header.
It’s possible the pressure coming from the flanks forced McCarthy to bring on Kwanda Mngonyama for his debut, sacrificing Vincent Kobola at right back.
The new man gave them some stability and protected goalkeeper Sage Stephens, but Stars were overall the better team in the second half.
City would have cut the lead at the top to just one point had they made it two in two here, but Stars have proved to be no pushover this season under coach Luc Eymael, a man who came highly recommended, and his work has so far proven why.
Ea Lla Koto were the ones who instead shaved the gap at the summit, benefiting from Sundowns being given a hiding by Orlando Pirates at Loftus earlier on Saturday afternoon.
It is just three points that separates Stars from the Brazilians, with Eymael having already gone on the record to say his focus is to get a club that has only aimed to survive relegation in the last three years into the top eight – not to win the title.
But there is no way they can be ignored as dark horses for the championship following wins against SuperSport United, Pirates, Wits and now City, who are among the usual suspects when it comes to challenging for the Premier League trophy.
Goble Park pic.twitter.com/SDeh78HGe7
Everyone who has watched them play agrees that Stars play with structure and discipline, which was evident here again on the night, while McCarthy’s City looked disjointed and battling for a focal point in their attack.
Eymael had bravely gone without his central attacker when he opted to leave Mohammed Anas, a subject of interest from several clubs during this month’s transfer window, on the bench.
Siphelele Mthembu led the line and was busy, although his entries in the box were limited.
But Stars got the goal the only way they know how – winger Maphakisa sending a long one into the box for Tchilimbou to connect with a diving header.
It’s the Stars way and no team seems to have a way to counter that as they continue their surge up the table to give the also-rans hope that the championship isn’t only reserved for the league’s big boys.