As the clock wound down to 90 minutes on Monday night, it looked like Mamelodi Sundowns would be settling for yet another draw.
Winless in all four Absa Premiership matches before the restart, the defending champions have stuttered in the bubble. Their failure to capitalise on Chiefs’ own lacklustre results was threatening to become the story of the remainder of the season. But they managed to dig deep and come up with a win.
89:54 0-0 Arrows in possession (under pressure)
89:55 Arrows dispossessed
90:01 Maboe crosses the ball into the box
90:03 GOAL! Themba Zwane scores 1 – 0 Sundowns
Those ten seconds could prove to be one of the most important passages of play for Sundowns this season. There certainly have been bigger results and performances before this one, but this win ensured that, with four games to play, Sundowns still have one hand on their title.
If they win all their remaining games, the title goes back with them. The only caveat would be that if Chiefs also win their last three games, Downs will have to make up a goal difference currently at +7, something which is certainly not impossible.
6 – Themba Zwane’s 91st-minute goal v Arrows was the 6th goal Sundowns have scored after 90+ minutes in the league this season, more than any other side.
Last season, they had no goals scored after 90+ minutes, with their latest league goal coming in the 88th minute. A case to be made that perhaps they didn’t need to score late goals. These late goals personify a resilience that may be the story of their long season.
Even when things have not gone well, Sundowns have held on until the very end – a similar storyline to the title race. If you had come to Pitso Mosimane in December and offered him that a win in the 26th game of the season would take his team level on points with Chiefs, he’d have walked from Chloorkop to wherever you were to collect that offer. The picture wasn’t as optimistic then.
More importantly, three of those 90+ goals were winners, against Maritzburg (H), Highlands Park (H) and the latest against Golden Arrows. The other three either extended the lead (2) or came as a consolation (1). These were six crucial points gained very late on in. It’s an oversimplified calculation, but without these six points, Chiefs would have been crowned champions with a win tonight. Yet, the teams could go level on points tonight.
The title race
Chiefs have already reached their highest points total since 2014/15 when they won the title. They have matched Sundowns’ wins total from their last title-winning campaign. But, given their December league position, these would be scant rewards for their season.
It would be disparaging to say they don’t deserve to be on top. While they have not always been at their best, especially in the second half of the season, they have won the most games and scored the most goals in the league.
They deserve their cushion, and a cushion is for times like this – when injuries & suspensions disrupt the flow of the team. When teams discover how to outsmart your tactics. The only question is, will that cushion be enough.
It would also be hasty to conclude that the title will be decided tonight. Even in Sundowns lose, Chiefs have to play Wits, Chippa and Baroka. Chiefs’ record in those fixtures over the last three years reads Played 15 Won 3 Drew 5 Lost 6. Sundowns have a better recent record against their last three opponents (P15 W8 D5 L2).
In addition, Mosimane has never lost a league match with Sundowns against two of them. But those opponents will likely be fighting relegation.
Teams have been asked to play games every few days, and the injuries and some performances have shown how difficult that is after a 5-month break. This means that squad depth – both quantity and quality on the bench – may be an important factor for all sides.
Five subs may be useful in principle, but their effectiveness can only be seen when you are bringing good players on the bench.
With that in mind, Sundowns may enjoy an advantage. This season, there have been 15 different players score for Sundowns, more than any other side, showing that their goals can come from anywhere on the pitch. And when you have talent like Themba Zwane coming off the bench to score, their threat also comes from off the pitch.
6 – Themba Zwane’s winner was the sixth league goal scored by a player coming on as a sub for Sundowns this season. Only Celtic (7) have seen more goals from subs.
Bloemfontein Celtic v Wits
Two sides still unbeaten since the restart meet on Thursday afternoon, and both sides still have a lot to play for beyond maintaining the unbeaten run. Wits are still mathematically in the race for the title and well within range for the CAF positions, while Celtic have a Top8 spot still in sight. It’s a clash of the best defence and one of the best attacks.
19 & 39 – Wits have conceded just 19 goals in the league this season, the fewest of all sides. Celtic have scored 39 goals in the league this season, with only Chiefs scoring more.
Stellenbosch v Chippa
Black Leopard’s midweek loss to SuperSport ensured that Stellenbosch would be in the top-flight again next season. The men from the Winelands are still in line for a Top 8 place, however, and will be aiming for their 10th win of the campaign:
5 – In the 30-game PSL era (2002 onwards), only five newly-promoted sides have won 10+ league games in their first top-flight season. Stellies are currently on nine.
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By Opta Jabu