Things have been looking up for Santos F.C. lately. I really think that the thrashing against local rivals Ajax CT was our rock bottom and it’s forced everyone including myself to have a good long look at ourselves. Every match since has had at least some redeeming quality. And we’ve not lost any of them, which of course is excellent.
So let’s keep the good form going with our SA Cup Second Round match away at Platinum Stars FC. We’re slight favourites against the 2nd tier side but I’ll be playing a heavily rotated team for various reasons. I had planned on playing Themi Maluka for example in our First Round match, but he was injured at the time, so he comes in replacing Hicham Aidir for this one in our Project: Foxy Mk II system. Molekwane, Roscoe and Baliso are all given starts ahead of Nkili, Kakuba and Norde in the hopes that they’ll be able to finally impress me, Luke Fanteni replaces Sinbad to gain a bit more first team experience and Luther Singh gets his first start for Santos, having recently come back to full fitness and earned the chance with his goal against Kaizer Chiefs. Young winger Qualanto makes his first bench appearance for the first team. Thoahlane sadly doesn’t start, but Platinum Stars’ number 46 is on the bench today.
It’s the home side that threaten first after only 10 minutes, when Moleko’s cross is met by Kunene and the midfielder’s header loops towards the far top corner of our net, only to be tipped against the bar by Komo at full stretch. 10 minutes later, Luther Singh gets the ball on the right wing, dribbles into the box and shoots, but the ball actually ends up closer to the corner flag than the goal.
With 25 minutes gone though, Singh plays the ball through for Themi inside the Platinum Stars box. The youngster hits it first time and powers it into the far bottom corner to put us ahead. We go close to a second after another 5 minutes when Juno’s corner is headed out by Mabaso but only as far as Singh, who tries a header from the edge of the box but can only direct it straight at Duma. I am encouraged by how involved Singh’s been so far though.
We take our lead into the second half, but Platinum Stars aren’t done yet. Kunene dribbles forwards 10 minutes after kick off and lays the ball back for Mabaso, who smacks it straight into the top corner from 20 yards. It’s a phenomenal finish to be fair and it’s all square again. It’s not level for long though. 15 minutes after the equaliser that we’ve learned nothing from, Kunene dribbles forwards and lays the ball back for Mabaso… Who smacks it in off the bar from 20 yards… It’s another phenomenal finish but I can’t help feeling we should’ve seen it coming.
I panic and throw on Diale, Joël and Aidir for Juno, Fanteni and Themi, also changing system to Project: Meatloaf and sending us out to attack, but we can’t find a way back in. 2 fantastic goals have undone us today and we’ve been knocked out of the South African SA Cup.
Obviously that’s not ideal. That’s the second time in my 2 years in Lansdowne that we’ve been knocked out of the SA Cup by lower league opposition, but to be honest it’s not the end of the world. Now we’ve got nothing to focus on but the league. Our decent form has carried us up to 8th place in the PSL with a game in hand, so we could easily go 7th, which is around where I was aiming for at the start of the season. If leaving the Cup means that we can go all out to secure a top half finish then so be it.
We travel to Wits for our next match. You might’ve noticed that I’ve been using the words “Travel” and “Away” quite a lot recently and you’d be right, because in all competitions this’ll be our 5th successive away match. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: South African football scheduling is odd. To be fair though our last 4 matches have ended as 1 loss in our last match, 1 draw (Which I’m still gutted about) and 2 wins, so we’re dealing with it. Wits are a difficult proposition though as I’ve been here for their last 4 meetings against Santos and we’ve lost 3 of them.
Mass changes are obviously made from the second string cup side. Nkili, Kakuba, Sinbad, Joël, Masango, Norde and Aidir are all restored, joining the only 3 survivors from last match’s starting line up: Komo, Sohna and Juno. The eagled eyed among you will have noticed that I just listed 10 names. The last is a tactical change: Zulu in for Japhta at left back. We’re sticking with Project: Foxy Mk II today and I want us to stay solid against Wits’ 4-4-2, so Zulu will come in as a defensive full back and Norde and Masango will be out and out wingers, giving us the width without Japhta’s overlapping runs. I’m also wary of how Sohna and Kakuba will deal with strike partnership Moses Yende and Shungu Dutiro after they completely failed to stop them last time. I tell Mike to mark 6’8″ Yende as he’s our tallest and most aerially dominant defender, and Isaac will mark 5’8″ Dutiro as he’s less of a force in the air.
It only takes 3 minutes for the deadlock to be broken. A patient Santos passing move breaks down and Myeni clears the ball, but Sohna intercepts the hoofed ball and thumps it back over the Wits defence for Hicham Aidir, who almost looks bored as he drills it into the back of the net.
Half an hour later Wits are trying to go route one to break us down, hoofing the ball into the box towards the towering form of Moses Yende. Kakuba’s doing an admirable job though, marking the big man tightly and beating him in the air when the lofted balls come in. 10 minutes from half time they try a different tact when Alexander’s released on the right wing. He goes for a low cross towards Yende, who gets a shot in at the near post, but Kakuba’s there once again to block it out for a corner.
We’ve been excellent. A simple bit of man marking has crippled the home side. They’re unable to break us down at the back and as it transpires they’re unable to stop us either. With just a few minutes to go of the first half, an excellent passing move ends with Joël passing to Sony Norde, who squares it for Masango on the edge of the box. Masango looks up and puts his foot through the ball, blasting it straight into the top corner for 2-0.
The second half is a non-event. Gogotya, Fanteni and Themi come on for cameos but the game’s already won. It’s a surprisingly routine victory.
Not only does that win carry us up to 7th, but it’s also significant for another reason. That early goal was Hicham’s 16th of the season in all competitions, which breaks King Carl’s record of 15 that he set last season. It’s been a tough year for Carl and I really feel for him, but it’s not as if I’ve not given him chances to break back into the first team. A Moroccan striker 10 years his junior coming in and breaking his record with a full third of the season still to play will do nothing for his confidence though. The King is dead. On the flip side though, what an outstanding player we have in Hicham Aidir. I’ve not had this much fun watching a striker smash in goal after goal since CM9 in my 2nd season with Angrense. He still hasn’t broken Santos’ league goal record of 15, having only 14 league goals so far, but surely breaking that record too is just a formality at this point. Long live the King.
Ah, the Athlone. I’ve missed this place. We’ll make our long awaited return to our home ground today when we host Bloem Celtic, who are 2 places and 4 points below us in the league with a game in hand. I have no intention of letting them climb above us in the table now that it’s the only competition we’re still in.
We’ll be without a couple of defenders for this one, with Isaac Sohna and Siyabonga Zulu suspended for 1 match for picking up 8 and 4 yellow cards respectively. Since we’re making our return home we’ll also return to our dominant system, Project: Meatloaf today. Roscoe and Japhta come in for the suspended duo at the back and Marothi Diale will come in replacing Juno in the holding man role. I’ve been really impressed with Juno, not just for his brilliant set pieces but also for his quality defensive performances as our anchor man. He’s played a lot of football lately though and I don’t want to burn him out, so he gets a rest. I’m also bringing back a part of Project: Meatloaf that I’ve not used since those halcyon days at Angrense; Norde and Masango will start as left and right wingers but will periodically swap sides and cut in onto their dominant feet. Ryan Moon’s back from injury too, so he makes the bench at the expense of King Carl.
5 minutes into the match, Isaac Sohna’s drawn out of position by Sonopo, who then plays a nice through ball into the box for Mathosi. The striker takes a touch and coolly buries the ball in the back of the net. Bollocks. To make matters worse, Mandla Masango picks up a knock to his thigh in the build up to the goal. It doesn’t look too serious though, so he’ll play on.
10 minutes later we concede a free kick on Celtic’s left wing. Lakay chips it into the box and Japhta heads the ball clear. It only goes as far as right winger Zuma on the edge of the area though, who has the time and space to pick his spot and smash the ball past Komo to make it 0-2. Sometimes you can tell that it’s going to be one of those days, and I’m absolutely certain it’ll be one of those when Sony Norde has to be stretchered off with a foot injury before the 25 minute mark. Singh comes on replacing him but Norde’s having a good season so it’s worrying to see him have to leave the field like that.
It’s actually a really even first half. We give as good as we get from Bloem Celtic but it feels like the wind’s been taken out of us. 2 goals down and 2 injured wingers will do that to you. I bring off Masango, who’s struggling with his thigh, and bring on Ryan Moon. Santos go on the attack.
It’s just not to be though. I even bring on Luke Fanteni in place of Diale with half an hour to go to try to give us an extra injection of creativity, but we don’t create anything of note in the second half. The match ends with Bloem Celtic having had 55% possession and both teams having had 12 shots, but only 2 of ours were on target to their 6, which is nowhere near good enough. It’s been a bad day.
It’s been an even worse day for Sony Norde. It transpires after the match that the versatile attacking midfielder has suffered a damaged achilles tendon and will be out until the end of the season and then some. He’s in tears in the physio room as Geron Barnes breaks the news to us. At 31 and with only 3 months left on his contract, I think Sony Norde might have played his last game for Santos.