Monday, 25 July 2011

Put the knitting away dear, it's nearly time for football... and plenty of needle!

Right, put the knitting away dear, turn off the Bold and the Beautiful... the football season is nearly upon us.

But my, how different things look since the end of last term, when Orlando Pirates, managed by Ruud Krol, saw off Ajax Cape Town, led by Foppe de Haan, and Ian Gorowa’s Mamelodi Sundowns.

Now of course, we’ve got Julio Cesar Jeal, Maarten Stekelenburg and the world-famous Dutchman Johan Neeskens in charge with Kaizer Chiefs boss Vladimir Vermezovic the only surviving manager in the top four. Incredible. Krol gone after winning just about everything. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger never suffer such insecurity.

But as we will find out at Soccer City on Saturday when Chiefs play Pirates yet again, some new-fangled money-maker called the Black Label Cup, there’ve been a few personnel changes among South Africa’s top teams too.

Most important departure? That could turn out to be South African Premier League top-scorer Knowledge Musona if his move from Kaizer Chiefs to Hoffenheim in Germany finally works out.

Otherwise, Ajax have lost the most significant player in their armoury – and the man voted South Africa’s finest last season – Thulani Serero. He is currently receiving rave reviews after a goalscoring debut at Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena last week.

There are others who could yet move before the European transfer window slams shut. Siphiwe Tshabala could still leave Chiefs after reported interest from Nottingham Forest’s new boss Steve McClaren failed to materialise. Morgan Gould, mysteriously rejected by Crystal Palace, may yet find another lucrative route out of Supersports United. Sundowns’ wantaway striker Katlego “Killer” Mphela is currently on trial with Scottish giants Celtic.

But South Africans worried about the exodus of top talent should not be overly concerned. With the big shake-up at treble-winning Pirates comes new blood.

The most impressive of those? Siyabonga Sangweni, 28, from Golden Arrows who looked solid at centreback during the Vodacom Cup, closely followed by young winger Sameehg Doutie from Ajax Cape Town and Namibian netbuster Rudolf Bester from Martizburg United.

Chiefs, clearly worried about the possible departure of Musona to Hoffenheim or the newly-interested Celtic, have picked up the man who finished behind him in the SAPL top-scorers’ race last year, Lehlohonolo Majoro from Amazulu. The 24-year-old spiky-haired firebrand from Ladybrand was highly impressive in the Amakhosi’s sparkling 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the opening game of the Vodacom challenge and looks a great buy.

At the back, where Chiefs needed a bit of work, Vlad the Impaler has speared Wits University’s teak-tough Tefu Mashamaite to shore up the centre and pointedly signed Keegan Richie from Moroka Swallows to replace left back Punch Masanamela, who left for apparently greener pastures at Sundowns’ HM Pitje Stadium.

Punch should prove a hit for South Africa’s so-called Brazilians and the much-hyped Neeskens, but his move may be overshadowed by the arrival of Gbolohan Salami. Little is known of the 20-year-old from Nigeria’s Sunshine Stars but early reports suggest an “old-fashioned centre-forward” with bulk and brawn. Might be a handful.

Uganda goalkeeper Dennis Onyango is training with Sundowns and the word is former Orlando Pirates sensation Teko Modise has recaptured some of his old sparkle under Neeskens.

It’s Ajax you have to worry about. Always destined to be a bit of a selling club, the Amsterdam-based franchise has added Serero to a list of top quality graduates which features such luminaries as Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy.

With De Haan finally retired and back in Europe, the untried Stekelenburg has a real job on his hands to keep the Mother City in the Championship chase again this season. No obvious replacement for Serero or Doutie has been purchased, though they have a queue of young talent eager to break through while Cole Alexander and Aiden Jenniker are both back from loan spells.

In goal, where some suggest the now-retired veteran Hans Vonk handed over the title to Pirates on the last day of the season, Stekelenburg has poached former Liverpool gloveman Sander Westerveld from Italian club Monza.

Still, Stekelenburg, who lists Pienaar and Spurs team-mate Rafael van der Vaart among his successes as a youth coach in Amsterdam, argues: “Foppe was very experienced, I’m very young. He was quiet and within himself, I’m a bit of an extrovert.

“But I’ll play the same 4-3-3 format, possession football. This club has finished second three times in the South African Premier League, so this is a huge opportunity for me.

“Serero is a special talent, you can’t really replace him. But I must try to find somebody who can play in his position in a different way.

“Sometimes a bit of arrogance is good, be humble off the field but take the lead on it. I’m confidence I can do the job.”

Just as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City are expected to dominate the English Premier League this season, so Pirates, Chiefs, Sundowns and Ajax are expected to remain the top four in South Africa.

But if Liverpool and Spurs are pushing for those Champions League places in England, who can we pull out of the hat to challenge the top four in South Africa?

The season-opening MTN8 competition will throw some of those contenders in to the fray, with Santos, Bloemfontein Celtic and Wits hoping to conjure a lucrative early boost to their challenge against Pirates, Sundowns and Chiefs respectively.

But for me it’s Supersports United – drawn against Ajax in the MTN8 - who may be the side to watch after finishing a disappointing eighth last season. The Pretoria-based side have persuaded Gavin Hunt to stay in charge and will be hoping for a return to the sort of form they showed winning three successive titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010. They’ve signed a dozen new players and Nasief Morris, 29, after a European career which took in Greece, Cyprus and Spain. If captain and lynchpin Gould doesn’t complete his dream move to Europe, they should be there or thereabouts.

Hunt, perhaps still paying for the £1.5m departure of Bongani Khumalo from the Matsatsantsa in January, admits: "It was a big comedown last season. But that's history. We are currently rebuilding, we’ve made massive changes,with 13 new players.

"I'm confident in our new recruits who will bring both experience and youth to the side. But there's no pressure. We'll just take it one game at a time."

Bet we’ll hear that phrase used again over the next ten months.

MTN8 opening fixtures (played first weekend in August, R8m to eventual winners):
Orlando Pirates v Santos
Ajax Cape Town v SuperSport United;
Kaizer Chiefs v Bidvest Wits

Mamelodi Sundowns v Bloemfontein Celtic

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