No silver for United

2014-05-05 00:00

THE dream of Maritzburg United lifting their first ever piece of major silverware is over. The Team of Choice were outplayed by a tactically astute Orlando Pirates to go down 2-1 in Saturday night’s Nedbank Cup semi-final at an overflowing Harry Gwala Stadium.

Two second half goals ensured that Pirates will meet Wits, who upset Kaizer Chiefs in Saturday’s earlier semi-final, in the tournament finale.

The visitors scored through a Mario Booysen own goal (52 minutes) and a long distance strike from Mpho Makola (60 minutes) before United gave themselves a chance through substitute Terrance Mandaza with 17 minutes left on the clock.

Maritzburg coach Steve Komphela had started with a conventional 4-4-2, picking speedsters Orlando Smeekes and Frank Sarfo-Gyamfi as his two most attacking players as he sought, expectedly, to play a direct counterattacking game largely dependent on pace.

But that tactic was short-lived, as Smeekes pulled up with a hamstring strain in the 18th minute and was substituted for Mandaza. Desperate to impress as he looks to secure a contract extension for next season, Smeekes was left an emotional wreck on the United bench after coming off.

“I was still doing some counselling up until right now,” Komphela said of Smeekes’s mental state at the post-match press conference. “He was shattered. He is a perfectionist and very hard on himself.”

Indeed, most of the United squad would have been shattered, and Komphela said that yesterday’s light training session had been aimed at getting them over that feeling ahead of tomorrow night’s PSL clash against Wits in Johannesburg.

“They are still disappointed,” the coach acknowledged to The Witness yesterday. “But we will have to get over it. There is nothing we can do. We are professionals and there is no time to look back.”

United were encouraging in the first half on Saturday, though by the end of the first 45 minutes Pirates had begun to show glimpses of why they have played in every cup final available to them this season.

Daine Klate could have given the visitors the lead as early as the 14th minute when his shot from point blank range was hit straight at Virgil Vries in what was the closest either side came in the opening stanza.

The match came to life in the second period, and Bucs were 1-0 up in bizarre fashion just seven minutes after the restart.

Klate’s low cross from the left was deflected goalwards by Kermit Erasmus before Vries made a sharp save that pushed the ball onto the crossbar. When it came back down, Booysen was in no position to react as the ball hit him and bobbled into the net.

United were stunned, and were visibly frustrated as Pirates kept the ball with ease. When Makola side footed past Vries from just outside the area to make it 2-0, it appeared to be game, set and match.

That was until Mandaza gave Maritzburg a glimmer of hope with an expert finish with his left foot after controlling an Ashley Harthog cross. The home side finished the match strongest, and Mandaza almost took the tie to extra time in the dying stages, but his shot was wayward.

It was a performance that Maritzburg can be proud of. With lots of “ïfs” and “buts”, it could have been a different story.

The Smeekes injury stands out as most relevant, as Komphela’s game plan had revolved around the Dutchman’s speed, strength and energy on the counter.

“We knew that Mandaza wouldn’t be able to give us the same speed when he came on, so it was a matter of him taking the ball in front of the defence instead of behind the defence,” Komphela, refusing to use the Smeekes injury as an excuse, explained. “He [Mandaza] did well for us when he came on.”

United have two more league matches remaining this season — tomorrow’s date with Wits and Saturday’s potentially title-deciding fixture against Mamelodi Sundowns at Harry Gwala. Regardless of what happens in those two matches, Maritzburg’s season has gone from potential relegation to PSL safety and a cup semi-final in four months since Komphela arrived.

“I am pleased with the way things have gone,” he said. “Nobody wants to be a relegation hero, but I am happy that we have survived and reached our mandate.”

Tomorrow night’s clash kicks off at 7.30 pm and will not be televised.

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