We need players. More specifically, we need my kind of players. Hard workers, fighters, scrappers. Reliable footballers who know what it takes to win. I’ve been harping on this for a while but the winter break’s on the horizon and we need to think about who can come in and help to change the personality of this squad. To start with, let me introduce you to free agent Sony Norde, who’s actually been on trial with us and playing in our Reserves for about 3 months.
Sony is a versatile attacking midfield option, is great technically and physically and has about as much determination, flair and work ethic as the entire pre-Franjo Santos team combined. He’s also an experienced international for his native Haiti. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need him in this squad, so I offer him a contract and he signs immediately, qualifying almost straight away for a work permit thanks to his inclusions in recent International matches. The only problem and the reason I’ve taken so long to sign him is that as a senior player he can’t be registered in the squad until January, so he won’t be a part of the 3 matches we still have before the break. He’ll continue playing in the reserves and getting his English up to speed for now.
Sundowns are our next opponents and they represent a significant challenge for us. While we’ve spent the past few weeks free-falling down the PSL table, Sundowns have been enjoying a steady start to the season, sitting 4th with 6 wins in 11 and a game in hand over pretty much everyone below them.
I’m taking Komo out of the firing line today. It’s been about 6 weeks since he went a match without picking the ball out of the net at least twice, although to be fair the rest of the team haven’t helped. Unsurprisingly, it’s also been 6 weeks since our last win. If we’re not careful this could turn into another GieKSa situation, so let’s try and get back on track, shall we? Also coming into the squad are Gary Havenga, Siyabonga Zulu and Joseph Ekwalla for his first start, at the expense of Cele, Japhta and Gogotya.
It takes 36 seconds for Nxumalo to latch onto Mosadi’s low cross and boot in the opening goal. 36 seconds. Moving on…
Almost 25 minutes in, we see promising signs from young Ekwalla when he receives the ball from Moon in our half and surges forwards past 2 Sundowns midfielders. He then takes a shot from 30 yards that flies wide, but still.
That run seems to remind the team that you can still play football even if you’re losing, because within 2 minutes we score probably the best team goal I’ve seen from one of my teams; An 18 pass move starting deep in our half and ending with a whipped cross from Jenniker and a point blank header from Moon to equalise. Brilliant football.
10 minutes on, Ekwalla surges forward once again and plays a perfect ball through the defence for Lark, who times his run brilliantly but tries to place the ball in the top corner and puts it just wide.
Half time passes and we come out well in the second half. We win a corner in the 52nd minute and Moon whips it in. Gcaba slices his clearance and the ball bounces off Havenga before falling perfectly for Diale, who thumps it past the keeper to put us ahead.
We last for all of 8 minutes before Monare’s long ball is pumped into our penalty area, Nxumalo rises above Zulu to nod it on and Ntuli is unmarked at the far post to volley the equalising goal past Visser. It was nice while it lasted though.
The game fizzles out out a bit after that. Sundowns don’t seem to want a winning goal too badly and our heads go down, resulting in a bit of a stalemate. I bring on Japhta and Sambou, replacing Zulu and Lark shortly afterwards, and then Cele on for Gertse who’s on a booking about 10 minutes from time.
2 minutes before the end, Motupa runs forward powerfully and shoots from the edge of the box, but it’s well wide of Visser’s net. Once the 90 minutes are up, Ekwalla intercepts a pass meant for Nxumalo and the South African International sees red in every sense, sliding through the back of our Cameroonian prodigy and earning himself a very slightly earlier bath than the rest of his team.
I can live with that result. We gave as good as we got against a good side and that puts me in a pretty good mood, which turns into a very good mood the next day when Goolam Allie agrees to invest in our youth facilities. I really like Goolam. He’s a smart man, a fair man and he really does want what’s best for his football club.
Now then. Today is a very big day because today the World Cup European Qualifying Groups are drawn. The matches won’t actually start until March 2021, but I’m exciting to see which teams we’ll be going up against. It’s one of these situations where I don’t know whether I want a tough or easy group. A tough group would give us the chance to go up against some of the biggest names in world football, whereas an easy group would give us a better chance of qualification. We’ll see. Oh, and we’ve been seeded 6th, which isn’t all that surprising.
1st Team: Liechtenstein (Ranked 160th)
Now seems a good as time as any to tell you properly about how Liechtenstein did in the qualifiers for the last 2 major tournaments. In our qualifying group for World Cup 18, we finished dead last, admittedly in a tough group with Spain and Italy, but we only picked up the 1 point from Israel. We did slightly better in our Euro 2020 qualifying group as I’ve mentioned before, finishing 5th out of 6.
2nd Team: Lithuania (Ranked 137th)
Interesting. I’ll admit, I don’t know too much about Lithuania. Former defender Marius Stankevičius’ name rings a bell, but I don’t remember him well at all. They kept things relatively tight against their World Cup 18 qualifying group, sneaking 2 1-0 victories over Malta and 3 1-1 draws; 2 against Slovenia and another against Slovakia, finishing stranded in 5th, 8 points below Scotland and 9 above point-less Malta. In Euro 2020 qualifying, they finished dead last in their group of 5, picking up a solitary point against Macedonia.
3rd Team: Montenegro (Ranked 75th)
Montenegro could be a dark horse in this group. They’re a small nation but they’ve got some well known players, such as Inter centre back Stefan Savic and Torino striker Stevan Jovetic. In their World Cup 18 qualifying group, they finished in a respectable 4th place, with 2 wins against Kazakhstan, another against Armenia and a draw with Denmark. They did OK in the Euro 2020 qualifiers too, finishing 3rd in their group, but to be fair a long way off 2nd placed Romania.
4th Team: Finland (Ranked 55th)
Finland are an interesting team. Like us, the 3rd best team in our group actually finished bottom of their World Cup 18 qualifying group, even below newly eligible nation Kosovo. They had a frustrating Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, drawing 5 of their 8 games and finishing 4th out of 5 teams. There’s also every chance that by the time we take them on, 34 year old captain Niklas Moisander, 32 year old vice-captain Tim Sparv and 32 year old key player Roman Eremenko could have all retired. Could we have drawn them at just the right time?
5th Team: Russia (Ranked 25th)
OK, I’ll take Russia. There are some very good teams in this tier and I think we’ve avoided some big hitters by drawing these. Fun fact: The hosts of World Cup 18 were actually dumped out of their own tournament on Alphabetical Order in the Group Stage by Australia. They’ve made short work of their admittedly quite weak Euro 2020 qualifying group though (That also contained Montenegro), winning 8 matches out of 10. Also, we have a friendly scheduled against these next year and that match has just got a lot more serious.
6th Team: Poland (Ranked 14th)
Wow. OK, this is, dare I say it, the “easiest” group we could’ve asked for. I say “Easiest” because we still realistically stand little to no chance of finishing higher than 5th. Poland are a good team, of course they are, but bearing in mind we could’ve had France or Germany, I’ll take that all day long. They had a mixed experience in qualifying for Euro 2020, finishing 2nd out of 5 on 13 points, just 1 above Israel. Manchester United’s Robert Lewandowski actually retired from International Football after Poland were dumped out of World Cup 2018’s Second Round in a 2-1 defeat against Portugal, which is a boost. They’re still a very good team though and hand on heart, they’ll probably beat us comfortably. Twice.
Here are the full qualifying tables for the last 2 tournaments in case you’re interested:
World Cup 2018 Qualifying:
Euro 2020 Qualifying:
Of course, the aim of these qualifiers is to… well, qualify. So that’s what we’ll be looking to do. The top team from each group qualifies for the World Cup, along with the best 3 2nd placed teams. I’m really looking forward to this. It’s a shame the qualifiers don’t start for another 15 months really, isn’t it.
World Cup 2022 Qualifying:
And… Oh good, we’re now ranked 170th in the world. Already we’ve fallen 10 places under my leadership. We’ve not even kicked a ball under the new regime yet, FIFA!
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Santos FC. We’ve just signed Sony Norde but he’s ineligible for the time being. Next up is Maritzburg United at their place, who are struggling even worse than we are.
There’s only 6 points between us and them at the minute though. A loss today would bridge the gap between us and the bottom 4, which I’m not too keen on doing. We set up almost identically to the Sundowns match, except with Japhta replacing Zulu and Jenniker dropping back to defence.
The first half is predictably quiet, with the exception of Mnyamane’s goal after 13 minutes; a far post header from a Nkanyiso Cele cross. Oh dear.
After 15 minutes of moping, orange slices and yet another bollocking from me, we head back out refreshed and rejuvenated for the second half. On the hour mark we also go on the attack.
With 20 minutes to go, Radebe’s corner is met by Shandu, who rattles our bar with a header. With 7 to go, Zulu and Sambou replace Jenniker and Lark. In injury time, a Sinbad volley grazes the top of the bar. It’s another one of them. Even though we played OK, the result is nowhere near good enough.
OK, we’re 2 days before Christmas. Let’s tie this half-season up then with a trip to Bidvest Wits. They beat us handily in the SA KO Cup but now we’re better equipped to stop them… Sort of. We’re ready… Ish. Let’s just get this done, eh?
I’ve made the executive decision that Visser is as much as a fucking liability as Komo, if not more, so we may as well let the young lad get some experience. He’s still improving after all. Khat’s back on the bench at the expense of Emil Sambou, who has been shocking so far this season. He’s out of the squad altogether today.
3 minutes in, Ryan Moon charges down the right wing like a man possessed. He whips a cross in towards the edge of the 6 yard box and Carl Lark, who’s impressing me more and more for his natural goalscoring ability, stoops to head the ball over the line.
The ball’s straight up at our end after kick off and Alexander floats a dangerous cross into the box. Gary Havenga heads it clear but only as far as Tshabalala, who nods the ball down for Scott on the edge of the area. Scott whallops it towards goal and the ball crashes off the underside of the bar, off the line, against the post and finally caught by the grateful Komo.
10 minutes in, Hlanti swings a corner in for the hosts. Komo claims it well, rises and plucks the ball out of the air. The referee blows his whistle though. Issouf Paro, captain for the day in the absence of Cele and Sambou, pushes Alexander in the area, allowing his keeper to make the catch. Wits have a penalty. Sikhakhane steps up – And powers the ball low past Komo to equalise.
10 minutes or so later, we have a dangerous looking indirect free kick, but the cross isn’t great and Wits clear. They counter attack through Harrison, who takes the ball through our half and onto the right touchline, before crossing for Mkatshana, whose header crashes in off the bar. Within 17 minutes, we’ve gone from winning to losing. To be fair, we haven’t played that badly, and I tell the lads that at half time. We’re genuinely quite unlucky to be behind.
The second half starts slowly, and is quite uneventful until the 68th minute when Wits win another corner. Hlanti whips it in again, Rodgers nods the ball on from the edge of the 6 yard box, Mkatshana lays it off and Sikhakhane gets his second goal of the day with a drilled finish from 8 yards. I’m saddened that we’ve gone from 1-0 up to 1-3 down, but that was a fantastic corner routine. We go on the counter to try and draw them out so that we can hit them on the break.
A few minutes later we win a corner of our own. Japhta’s cross comes in but the ball’s headed clear. Sinbad takes it down 25 yards out and runs to the right side of the box before attempting a cross. None of our players manage to get to it, but it does deflect off Hlanti and wrong foot the keeper, pulling the score back to 2-3.
So there we are. Half time in the Premier Soccer League and we’re a respectable but unexciting 12th in the table. Look, the performances aren’t that bad. Most of the time. Some of the time. The results are the problem, as they so often are in this business. We’ve got about 6 weeks now to get back on the training pitch, get some new bodies in, tighten up our leaky defence and start playing as a unit. If I’ve learned anything from GieKSa, it’s that the second half of the season is crucial. In a way, even more crucial than the first. I intend to make the second half of this season a bloody good one.