New season, new challenge

New season, new challenge

Bidvest Wits will defend their title, but face an entirely different test from the chasing pack. By Wade Pretorius

Just when you were starting to get used to the idea of a Saturday afternoon without the happiness – or the heartbreak – of watching your favourite team in action, the new Premier Soccer League season is about to get going.

Bidvest Wits will once again be the team to beat, with Gavin Hunt remaining at the helm after being overlooked by Safa for the Bafana Bafana head-coach position. He has assembled the kind of strength in depth that has many wondering whether The Clever Boys will add a second title immediately after breaking into the ranks of the elite few that have managed to bring the PSL crown back home after a gruelling 30-match season.

The biggest shock in the preseason wheeling and dealing was the departure of Eric Tinkler, who swapped Cape Town City for SuperSport United. Tinkler’s exit reverberated around the Cape, with many left dumbstruck by his decision. The former Bafana midfielder found his feet there as a top-level coach, turning his band of misfits (then the Mpumalanga Black Aces) into serious title contenders, with a Telkom Knockout triumph added in for good measure.

Now, Tinkler has taken on a new challenge, filling Stuart Baxter’s shoes at Matsatsantsa after the national reins were handed over to the Scot. Of course, the top job at SuperSport is not without its own unique challenges – it’s a club where you either win or find yourself looking for a new job. Just ask Cavin Johnson, who arrived a few years back on top of the world, only to be dumped months later.

This will be Tinkler’s greatest test yet, as he must join Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in preparing his side to be something more than just pretenders to the throne. What he does have is a squad with all the right ingredients required to mount a serious charge at the top spot. The likes of Dean Furman, Jeremy Brockie, Tefu Mashamaite and Reneilwe Letsholonyane provide the experience; with Ronwen Williams, Denwin Farmer and Teboho Mokoena adding the useful spark needed to go the distance.

What then is to be made of the floundering Chiefs and Pirates outfits, whose only headline-grabbing months coincided with the season-opening Carling Black Label Champion Cup? The reshuffling continues at Naturena, where Steve Komphela remains under the microscope. Camaldine Abraw, Lewis Macha, Siyanda Xulu and Lucky Baloyi have all been shown the door, but it is the coach who must now stand up and deliver. It’s been two long, hard seasons for the Glamour Boys, who have had little to shout for between Cape Town City’s underdog fairy tale, Mamelodi Sundowns’ Champions League exploits and Wits’ stellar 2016–17 season.

Is Komphela the right man for the job? Lucas Radebe, former Chiefs and Leeds United defender, is one of the few backing the philosophical mentor to come right. ‘It is going to be tough for Steve, because the one thing that you need, especially in such a great club, is silverware,’ says Radebe. ‘He will be disappointed’ [for not winning a trophy with Chiefs in the last two seasons].

‘And yes, it’s been two seasons [without a trophy] and he is going to his third [season] and I think there are going to be a lot of expectations and everybody will be looking at Steve. So, it’s going to be tough, but I think he will hang in there.’

The situation across town at Orlando Pirates is just as delicate. Kjell Jonevret’s arrival did not have the immediate impact that The Ghosts were after, with the relatively unknown coach seeing his side finish 11th in the league. Most concerning for those linked to the great club was the goal-difference statistic, which points to problems at both sides of the pitch. The Buccaneers finished their league campaign 11 goals in the negative – an alarming figure for any outfit considered one of the best on the continent. The hard work has been done in preseason, with Jonevret working tirelessly with his back-room staff to figure out how to get the very best out of players such as Thamsanqa Gabuza, Mpho Makola and, most importantly, Oupa Manyisa.

‘There’s always pressure to win and, as a football player, you must accept that there will always be pressure, regardless of whether you are doing bad or good, because people expect you to deliver in every game that you play,’ says Ace. ‘It doesn’t sit very well with us to know that this has been the first time the club has finished outside the top 8.’

A strong Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs has always pointed to a strong national outfit. With both World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifying matches taking place this season, many will be hoping that the Soweto giants turn the corner after last season’s struggles – not only for the PSL’s sake, but for Bafana Bafana’s too.

One team that doesn’t ever seem to waver is Mamelodi Sundowns, who will be licking their wounds after coming up short last term. Pitso Mosimane is, however, quickly turning The Brazilians into the perfect mixture of flair and force – the kind of team that’s capable of competing against not only South Africa’s best teams but any outfit on the continent. Previously peripheral players including Themba Zwane, Tiyani Mabunda and Asavela Mbekile have all progressed into in-demand first-team stars, definitely making squad retention top of Mosimane’s to-do list before the current transfer window slams shut at the end of August. Last season’s congested fixture list is a thing of the past for Sundowns – they must erase that from their memories as they look ahead and plan to wrestle the title back to Chloorkop.

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