First legs of the MTN8 semi-finals take place this weekend, with all teams out to stamp their authority on opponents before the return fixtures a week later.
Defying the odds
In spite of well-documented off-field issues relating to finances, Bloemfontein Celtic have weathered the storm. On the field, they have shown great resilience and navigated like a ship sailing on calm seas.
Owner Max Tshabalala has been trying to steady things since 2018, when the money troubles first hit. In previous seasons, a chronic lack of cash saw players go on strike and refuse to attend training.
The club has almost been sold a few times, with the latest bid reportedly coming from TS Galaxy owner Tim Sukazi in early 2020. However, Sukazi was keen to move the club to Mpumalanga upon purchase — as he subsequently did when he bought Highlands Park.
But moving did not sit well with the supporters of Celtic, who are some of the most passionate on the continent. Fortunately for the Siwelele faithful, the deal did not go through and the club remains in Bloemfontein.
With all this going on in the background, the club reached the final of the Nedbank Cup last season with some enterprising football from John Maduka’s charges. Unfortunately for them, they were soundly beaten by treble winners Mamelodi Sundowns.
But they also finished in the top eight, to secure their spot in this season’s MTN8.
“When it comes to the financial stuff‚ the management is aware of the situation and they have to dig deep to make sure that everything goes according to plan,” said Maduka last season.
In this season’s league campaign, the team have had a less than ideal start. From two matches so far they have a draw and a loss. In their last outing, they were beaten 1-0 by newly promoted Swallows.
“We have to sharpen in the final third, where we must be more hungry to score,” commented Maduka. “You can defend and defend, but at the end of the day if you don’t score the pressure goes back to the defence.
“This will help us moving forward [to the MTN8 match],” said Maduka following that loss.
Celtic head into the first leg of their MTN8 semi-final against Supersport United knowing they were responsible for booting out Sundowns in the first round. Maduka’s men played out of their skins as they defeated Masandawana 1-0 in mid-October.
They will look to carry that winning spirit to the Lucas Moripe Stadium in Pretoria.
Defending champions Supersport come into the clash on the back of a disappointing 3-1 loss away to Golden Arrows and, they too, will be out to save face and gain a first leg advantage.
The two sides have met in four previous cup clashes. Celtic hold the psychological edge in that regard, having edged their opponents on each occasion, with one outright win and three through penalty shootouts.
The other semi-final sees familiar foes Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates lock horns. Both Soweto giants are currently experiencing major trophy droughts, with Chiefs having gone half a decade without silverware and Pirates six years deep into their thirst.
Both will be desperate for a shot at the MTN8 trophy and know a good performance will be a step closer to that goal.
The teams head into the fixture evenly balanced. Amakhosi are unable to sign any new players due to a Fifa ban relating to the illegal signing of Malagasy player Andriamirado “Dax” Andrianarimanana in 2018.
They do have a new signing in the form of coach Gavin Hunt though, and he will be looking to whip his charges into shape. It’s been a slow start for Amakhosi under the new leadership, with them only scoring three goals in their three games in all competitions this season. Worryingly, none of the attacking players found the net.
“We have a huge game on Saturday against Pirates. I am disappointed that we have not scored a goal from our strikers but let us win more games and collect points and get ourselves in the leaderboard. Anyone could have got a few goals but we will work on that. Team first and individual performances will follow,” said Hunt recently.
Their rivals have not fared much better in front of goal in recent times. They have managed to score more than one goal in just one of their last 13 games in all competitions.
In contrast to Chiefs, the Buccaneers have gone on a spending spree, bringing in a host of new signings.
Coach Josef Zinnbauer is charged with integrating these new additions into the team. Some, including Bafana Bafana captain Thulani Hlatshwayo, have been slotted straight into the starting 11, but this has evidently disrupted the fluidity of the team.
It is likely to be a game of tactics, with mistakes punished — as opposed to a free-flowing, back-and-forth sparring session. For the teams though, it’ll be about who can land a damaging blow with the second leg of the semi-final looming on 8 November. DM