A tricky cup tie

2008-10-24 00:00

Maritzburg United might be favoured to beat Free State Stars in the Telkom Knockout first round at Charles Mopeli Stadium in QwaQwa this afternoon, but the Team of Choice will take a guarded approach in a tricky cup tie.

Stars have had off-the-field troubles with the departure of coach Owen Da Gama two weeks ago, citing interference from management. The Free State team also have a few injuries and suspensions, most notably to captain and midfield schemer Duncan Lechesa, Ghanaian central defender John Mensah and left-sided player Siyabonga Mdluli.

In contrast, United have no suspensions and their only injury doubt is central defender Gary Goldstone (ankle). The mathematics of it — when you throw in that United have gone four matches unbeaten in their start to the Premier Soccer League, and Stars have won one game out of four — are that the visiting team should come out victorious.

But two factors are still very much in Stars’ favour, and will force United to tread carefully on their sojourn to the picturesque stadium that sits nestled in the shadows of the Maluti Mountains.

Firstly, that Stars are particularly strong playing at home — one of the reasons they finished a very respectable fifth on their return to the PSL last season. Secondly, as underdogs Stars are sure not to fall for the undermining agent that can creep into all winning teams, and that might affect United — overconfidence.

Still, on current form, and given the United coaching staff and players’ constant assurances that the team have kept their feet on the ground, one cannot help feeling that only an off day or poor fortune would keep United from prevailing.

While almost all the Premier Soccer League clubs are showing signs of far greater stability this season — a sign of the financial injection and resultant professionalism in the PSL — Stars so far have been the exception. It is not yet November and already the Free State team have been through two coaches.

Ghanaian David Duncan resigned as head coach before the season had even started in August, claiming interference from Da Gama, who was then the club’s technical director. Two weeks ago, Da Gama, then coach, resigned for the same reason, with the meddling coming from the team’s management, he said.

Themba Sithole, a former assistant coach at the club and the current head coach of Stars’ First Division feeder team, Carara Kicks, has replaced Da Gama in a caretaker capacity.

Pundits have tipped Stars to fall prey to second-season syndrome and struggle in 2007/08, and if they continue at their current rate of coaches, that just may be the case.

Stars’ dangermen are midfield playmaker Prince Olomu and big battering ram striker Diyo Sibisi.

Olomu was the only player in the PSL to start every game for his club last season, and showed his potential with a hat-trick in a 3-1 league win against Platinum Stars. Sibisi was the PSL’s second-top scorer with 13 goals.

The Free State team enjoy running hard at defences. United’s well-organised back four have shown in their last two matches — a 2-1 home victory over AmaZulu and 0-0 draw away to Bloemfontein Celtic — that they can absorb pressure, and might need to for periods this afternoon.

The Telkom Cup has seen some fast-paced action already, including Lamontville Golden Arrows’ 4-1 thrashing of Kaizer Chiefs and Bloemfontein Celtic humbling Santos 5-0. With Stars’ hard-running style and United’s high-intensity, quick-passing approach, there could be another action-filled cup tie this afternoon.

In another intriguing fixture this weekend, Thanda Royal Zulu will decide tomorrow if striker Bernard Parker and winger Felix Obada will play in tomorrow afternoon’s tie against Orlando Pirates in KwaMashu. Both players will return from their trial at Malmo in Sweden on the morning of the match.

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