Owen's got Da Right Stuff

2007-12-22 00:00

AS Orlando Pirates try to finish the first half of the season with a victory over AmaZulu at Princess Magogo Stadium in kwaMashu tomorrow, Bucs coach Owen Da Gama can look back with satisfaction at his first three months in charge.

Since replacing DR Congolese Bibey Mutombo in late September, who left behind him a team in last place in the Premier Soccer League and in a state of disunion and disarray, Da Gama has stepped into one of the hottest coaching seats in South Africa with confidence and humility.

The approachable coach, who in seven years guided Silver Stars (now Platinum Stars) from the first division to PSL runners-up last season, has healed rifts, tightened up the Bucs defence and co-ordinated the attack. Players such as 20-year-old Excellent Walaza, who had not scored this season before Da Gama’s arrival; winger Bennet Chenene and playmaker Teko Modise have been turned from chickens without heads into predatorial eagles, heads intact.

Pirates were only the second team to beat league leaders Ajax Cape Town this season, moving to a season-high of third place. Successive 1-1 draws, away against Platinum Stars and at home to Free State Stars, have seen the Bucs drop back to sixth.

But with Ajax having lost again to neighbours Santos, the league is wide open, and Bucs can go into the Christmas break nicely nestled to challenge for the title in the second half if they can win their last game against AmaZulu tomorrow. Not that pushing for the league title is top of Da Gama’s priorities just yet.

“Obviously I am very pleased with the way things have gone so far,” the coach told Weekend Witness yesterday. “Our goal was to try and be in the top eight by the halfway mark and we have surpassed that. When I took over here we were in bottom place, and never expected to be up where we are so quickly.

“Now everybody is suddenly saying ‘but you can win the league from here’. But I am not focused on that; I am focusing on achieving our original target of finishing in the top eight.

“We have to make sure we don’t get blinded by a little bit of success and forget our main objective of building a good football team.”

Da Gama acknowledges that Pirates are still far from the finished product. The defence, in particular, still needs attention having conceded a goal in each of their last four games, and nine in their last six.

“There is definitely still a lot of work to do. Alex Ferguson says Manchester United are playing some of the best football they have under him this season, but he has been there 19 years.

“Just because we have put a few things right does not mean we have arrived yet,” Da Gama concedes.

The unwieldy nature of Pirates’ 47-strong squad has been a stumbling block to putting together a balanced combination, says Da Gama.

“In certain departments, yes, we are a balanced team, but not overall. There are some areas where we still need a bit of height and strength.

“We have 47-odd players to work with and when you win it is very difficult to make changes to the starting line-up. So there are bound to be a lot of unhappy players.

“Also the squad ends up being unbalanced and you have, say, nine right-wingers, or 15 central defenders. And many of them are the same type of player, so you can’t choose a tall striker here, or a strong, physical midfielder there.”

With the transfer window looming, will there be a clearout to trim the squad to manageable proportions?

“It will always be in consultation with the chairman [Irvin Khoza],” the coach stresses. “And the reason for that is that there has been a lot of money spent on some of these players, and you can’t just discard them.

“So we will have to try do do some damage control and manage the best we can over the next few months, and slowly try to work out a solution to the situation that we find ourselves in.”

Da Gama would like nothing more than to go into the Christmas break, with the PSL resuming in February after the African Nations Cup in Ghana, by bouncing back to winning form. He knows, though, that it will be a tough undertaking against Clive Barker’s AmaZulu, who have not won in five games and slipped from mid-table to the lower half.

“AmaZulu have drawn their last two home games and they will also want to end their first half of the season on a high. So the teams both have common goals and I think it will be an interesting game.”

AmaZulu have Ghanaian midfielder Mohammed Awal-Issah back from suspension, who is set for an exacting afternoon trying to bottle up Modise, who, along with Walaza, will join up with Carlos Albert Parreira’s Bafana Bafana Nations Cup training camp in Durban on January 5. Pirates have full-back and captain Lucky Lekgwathi back from suspension.

In other action this weekend, defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns’ encounter with second-placed Free State Stars will be watched with keen interest. Downs’ 2-1 midweek home defeat against Platinum Stars was followed by a two-hour crisis meeting involving displeased CEO Patrice Motsepe, under-pressure coach Gordon Igesund and disgruntled players.

Last night: Wits University X Moroka Swallows X

Today and tonight: Free State Stars v Mamelodi Sundowns (Goble Park, 3.30 pm – live on SuperSport Update and SABC1), Kaizer Chiefs v Black Leopards (Loftus, 7.30 pm – live on SuperSport Update), Supersport United v Bloemfontein Celtic (Super Stadium, 8 pm – live on SABC1), Ajax Cape Town v Lamontville Golden Arrows (Athlone, 7.30 pm), Jomo Cosmos v Thanda Royal Zulu (Ackerville Stadium, 3.30 pm)

Tomorrow: Platinum Stars v Santos (Olympia Stadium, 3.30 pm – live on SuperSport 3), AmaZulu v Orlando Pirates (Princess Magogo, 3.30 pm – live on SABC1)

STANDINGS

P W D L F A Pts

Ajax 14 7 4 3 19 11 25

FS Stars 14 6 5 3 18 14 23

Wits 14 6 5 3 15 15 23

Swallows 14 6 4 4 21 19 22

Celtic 14 6 4 4 13 12 22

Pirates 14 6 3 5 20 17 21

Supersport 14 6 3 5 13 12 21

Arrows 14 5 4 5 15 16 19

Santos 14 4 7 3 11 12 19

Chiefs 14 3 8 3 15 11 17

AmaZulu 14 4 5 5 13 14 17

Sundowns 14 3 6 5 18 19 15

P Stars 14 3 6 5 13 20 15

Leopards 14 4 1 9 13 16 13

Thanda 14 3 4 7 14 18 13

Cosmos 14 2 7 5 9 14 13

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