Toughest battle yet

2009-01-16 00:00

IT would seem to be high stakes time at Woodburn Stadium this afternoon, when floundering Maritzburg United host Premier Soccer League leaders Ajax Cape Town.

Ultimatum or no ultimatum, it is clear that what seemed almost impossible at the start of the season has become possible. United coach Gordon Igesund’s job is under scrutiny as the team’s freefall from the top half of the table has continued unabated since the return of the PSL from its Christmas break, with the team having won just one game in 11, and lost eight to sit in second-last place.

One has to feel for Igesund in this sort of predicament. Not too many coaches can have worked harder than he has at United, putting together a good squad in a limited space of time and trying his damndest to whip them into fighting shape, and then to maintain that momentum.

It’s more than that though. Igesund is an icon of South African football. He has won four league titles at four different clubs – only Ted Dumitru has as many. He should have been the Bafana Bafana coach in 1998, when only a last-minute phone call from one or other Safa office put an end to that process within 24 hours of the story being leaked that Igesund had the job.

Now the coach is fighting relegation in second-last place, and has seen his United side slide down the rankings in alarming fashion, bleeding goals away from home and, crucially, battling to win their home matches.

United are in an even tighter spot due to the nightmare programme they were handed on their return from the break thanks to the postponement of their fixture against Telkom Knockout finalists Orlando Pirates, and a match against Supersport United being brought forward due to that team’s participation in the Caf Chamions League.

United have faced Moroka Swallows (lost 2-1 away) and Bucs (lost 2-1 away), and now meet Ajax, Supersport (at Woodburn on Wednesday) and Kaizer Chiefs (away on Saturday).

But just five or six more points gained from home wins against some of the mid- to lower-table opposition United lost or drew against in the first half of the season would have at least given the PMB side a cushion going into this tough phase.

Igesund had to watch as his team gradually went into meltdown after their four-match unbeaten start, as goalkeeping errors, central defensive blunders and a lack of penetration became increasingly the hallmarks of United’s performances.

Now the PMB team are paying for those errors and dropped points against the stronger sides like Ajax.

Urban Warriors coach Craig Rosslee brings with him to Woodburn perhaps the best combination technically, skillfully, physically and organisationally in the league. The Telkom champions are a pleasure to watch, and United’s fans’ sufferings will be somewhat placated by the prospect of viewing Ajax here in Pietermaritzburg (after all, isn’t that what being in the PSL is all about?).

From cultured defenders such as Nazeer Allie, Eduardo Ferreira and Brett Evans, to destructive midfielders Nhlanhla Shabalala, Clifford Ngobeni and Sameegh Doutie, and super-sharp striker Mabhudi Khenyeza, the Telkom champions are a potentially deadly combination.

But simply ogling their illustrious visitors’ silky build-up play will not be enough for the United players, or for their fans. The PMB team are in an increasingly desperate position, and must find a way to counter Ajax this afternoon to relieve some of the pressure on themselves, and their coach.

United have striker Brice Aka and new signing Fanyana Dhladhla, both red-carded in the team’s last two games, out suspended.

Kick-off: 3.30 pm – live on SABC1

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