Nedbank Cup: Plucky Black Aces square up for epic battle

2008-05-23 00:00

IT has been called a David versus Goliath showdown, but this afternoon’s Nedbank Cup final between Mpumalanga Black Aces and Mamelodi Sundowns at Johannesburg Stadium might more closely resemble the war in Iraq.

The U.S. has all the power and might it needs, but darn, those pesky Iraqis can get underfoot!

First Division upstarts Black Aces, successors to the Witbank Black Aces team that terrorised opponents visiting what was then Eastern Transvaal in the 1980s and early 1990s, will aim to be as efficient as the Iraqis malcontents in their war of disruption against the Pretoria giants.

The Davids of the battle have already begun deploying their guerilla tactics, and apparently scored a few hits. If the final is anywhere nearly as entertaining as its build-up has been, it will be well worth watching.

At a joint press conference, Sundowns’ caretaker-coach, Trott Moloto, was rattled when opposite number Kenny Ndlazi pitched up 40 minutes late. Moloto refused to proceed with the briefing and share the mic with Black Aces general manager Peter Koutroulis, taking Ndlazi’s absence as signalling Aces’ reluctance to share information on their team.

When Ndlazi eventually did saunter in, proclaiming traffic as an excuse, Moloto berated him solidly.

Adding to the uneasy mood is that Koutroulis was club manager at Sundowns before billionaire owner Patrice Motsepe took a new broom to much of the staff.

Off-the-field mind games aside, today’s final could be an absorbing encounter, despite the apparent mismatch. Aces have displayed guts and determination to make it as far as they have, and are the team with the least to lose.

The Witbank-based side have accounted for Free State Stars, Nathi Lions, FC AK, Thanda Royal Zulu and Ga-Rankuwa United in previous rounds.

Most impressive in their run is that they have not conceded a goal, scoring seven along the way. In almost Chelsea-like fashion, Aces have relied on their defensive structure to soak up pressure, then done enough to produce a goal or two to earn victory.

Even Sundowns’ vaunted attack might struggle to break down Aces’ defence of goalkeeper Michael Babale and defenders Felix Musasa, Thabang Rooi, Lucas Tlhomelang and Gordon Gilbert. The back four are well protected by two hard-working holding midfielders, Essau Mtsweni and former Orlando Pirates skipper Edelbert Dinha.

Up front, their dangerman is former Maritzburg United striker Kabamba Musasa, who scored the goal that eliminated Free State Stars in the semi-finals.

For Moloto, this afternoon’s final represents a chance to add to the cup trophy he won with Umtata Bucks in 1995. Winning the trophy would also strengthen Moloto’s case that he deserves to coach the Brazilians in a full-time capacity next season.

Some have been surprised by Moloto’s success at Sundowns, taking the team from 12th to a fourth-placed finish in the league despite a 4-0 closing defeat by Free State Stars. The coach has not enjoyed great fortunes at club level since his two-year stint with Bafana Bafana ended in 2000. He faced relegation with Bush Bucks in 2002/03 and was axed from struggling Maritzburg United halfway through the season in 2005/06.

Perhaps the most telling statement about Moloto’s revival of his career was made by the coach himself this week. “Whatever materialises,” the 52-year-old former Moroka Swallows defender told Sapa, “I believe I am a much better and more knowledgeable coach today than I was when at the helm of Bafana.”

For Sundowns, central defender Benson Mhlongo will miss the final after a collision in training on Thursday resulted in an injured left ankle. He joins injured goalkeeper Calvin Marlin and defender Mbulelo Mabizela, and suspended right-back Papi Mungomeni. For Sundowns, though, these absentees hardly make a dent on the most expensively assembled squad in the country.

Downs have only twice won the Nedbank Cup, in 1986 and 1998, and will view this afternoon’s final as a clear opportunity for a third title in the competition, and second trophy this season after their SAA Supa 8 triumph in September.

It has been a stirring run for Black Aces, but the odds seem stacked against them to go one step further, slay the Goliath of South African football, and heroically sweep away the trophy.

The final word, though, has to go to the colourful Koutroulis: “Check the Bible and see what happened in the battle between David and Goliath. And, by the way, Aces never go to extra time.”

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