They say that every cloud has a silver lining. I’ve had a pretty miserable time with the Liechtenstein squad but back in Lansdowne we’ve had more players than usual joining their countries for International duty, which has brightened up my International break.
Komo, introduced to South Africa Under 20’s squad since my arrival and insistence that he play and captain our first team, has been joined in his national youth squad by Themi Maluka! And in classic Themi style our academy graduate came off the bench to score on his International youth debut. Good lad. Emil Sambou’s still getting the nod for Gambia while out on loan, which is great, and Mike Kakuba’s an essential part of the Ugandan National side, but the news that made me swell with pride was that Hicham Aidir got his very first full call up and cap for Morocco, oddly enough in an away match against South Africa at the Mmabatho Stadium in Mafikeng. It’s undoubtedly the first of many times he’ll represent his country and I’m absolutely made up for him. If I didn’t have my own stuff going on I’d have travelled to Mafikeng with Joël and some of the lads to cheer him on.
After I touch back down in Lansdowne we also have a new batch of youth players emerge from the academy, which always brings some much needed excitement and optimism. Santos’ Head of Youth Development Alcardo Van Graan has been banging on for weeks about a few of these lads; 15 year old goalkeeper Mlungisi Maake, a goalkeeper with excellent reflexes and good height and handling…
…15 year old centre back Luyanda Seedat, a very physically fit and brave young centre back. He’s strong in the challenge and decently hard working, with pretty good decision making and ability to mark a man…
…And 16 year old centre back Sinethemba Tavares, a tall defender who’s dominant in the air, dominant in the challenge and with decent fitness levels and marking ability. He’s also left footed and able to play at left back, which is always a bonus.
I’m impressed enough with all 3 to offer them pre-contracts for when they turn 17, which they all sign. As usual, I come down to watch the academy lads play our Under 19’s. The 3 players I’ve signed to pre contracts all start at the back for the Under 19’s and are joined by several youth players and Carl Lark, because why not. Oddly both teams set up to play the original Project: Foxy, a system that I’ve not seen since my early days in Lansdowne.
Right winger Thamsabqa Ndlovu gets the Under 19’s off to a flier by heading home from Thuso Mtule’s cross after 4 minutes. Thamsabqa was on my radar at the start of the season and I initially thought I’d keep him with the first team as back up for Ryan Moon, but several months and signings later he’s not made an appearance. Much to my surprise when the U19’s win a penalty in the second half, our new left sided centre back Sinethemba Tavares steps up and tucks it away confidently.
Carl Lark finishes well on the turn to put the U19’s 3-0 up with 25 minutes to play, before academy graduate centre back Sekela Mayambela volleys in from an Albert Nevhulamba free kick to pull it back to 3-1. With just over 10 minutes to play though, King Carl gets behind the defence and finishes coolly to restore the 3 goal cushion to the Under 19’s. 4-1 it ends.
I always love to see the next generation of first team hopefuls make their first steps at the club. What I don’t love to see however is Yanga Baliso barging into my office after the match to give me an ultimatum – Either I give him first team football or he leaves. It’s a pretty easy decision. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, Yanga.
Carl Lark’s brace, albeit against a group of players not yet able to grow decent moustaches, impresses me enough to reserve him a spot on the bench for our next league game, but unfortunately he damages his foot in a reserve match a few days later and will be out for up to a month. Oh well.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m keeping my options open for next season. My contract’s only got a few months left on it and I’m open to suggestions and offers about where I’ll sign my next one. One club I won’t be going to however is Chippa United, whose Chairman Ernest Banda has offered me an interview. I politely decline. If I am to stay in South Africa I’ll be staying at Santos.
I had hoped that Ernest would’ve spread that message to all of his Chairman buddies, but if he does then Thulani Nematswerani doesn’t get the message. He offers me the chance to interview for the vacant position at Bidvest Wits, but I refuse once again.
Goolam Allie must’ve heard rumblings about these offers though and offers me the chance to discuss a new contract, but I’m honest with him, letting him know that I’m keeping my options open and that we’ll discuss it at the end of the Season.
In other news, our reserves have won the league, thanks to a good combination of promising youth and quality fringe players. Ajax CT reserves have won it for the last 2 years so it’s a great middle finger to them, which I’m sure more than makes up for our 1-5 demolition a couple of months ago in the eyes of the Santos faithful.
As it happens, I do stumble across a job that quite interests me. Call me mad, but almost a year ago I said I’d be watching Lazio manager Giuseppe Iachini like a hawk, ready to pounce if he slipped up. Well he’s slipped up. Lazio are currently 6th in Serie B and have parted ways with Giuseppe. I throw my hat into the ring. Lazio may still be out of my reach in terms of their status in the footballing world, but if you don’t buy a ticket you won’t win the raffle, will you?
We also play a friendly against our Under 19’s to keep us fresh during the extended International break. It’s not exactly a showcase match for attractive football, but we come away with a 2-0 win courtesy of Joël’s bundled finish following a scramble in the box and Masango’s cool finish from Japhta’s cross.
Unfortunately we may well have seen the last of another Santos player. I’ve given Siyabonga Zulu some stick in the last 2 years, but he’s been OK, especially this season when I’ve wanted a more defensive option at left back than our converted winger Sello Japhta. He tears his hamstring in training and won’t be back for 2-3 months, meaning he’ll probably miss the rest of the season, and bearing in mind the fact that he’s already agreed to join Future Tigers when his contract expires, we might not see him again. If nothing else I’ve enjoyed writing your name, so cheers Siyabonga.
So after a lengthy spell of doing everything except playing competitive matches with Santos, it’s finally time to play some football. Today we welcome Sundowns to the Athlone, who are doing well and sitting at 5th place in the league.
Marothi Diale’s 8th booking of the season in our last outing means that he’ll miss this one through suspension, although that’s fine with me as it means I get to watch Juno and his marvellous set pieces. We’re playing a very standard and very narrow 4-1-2-3 system today that I’ll call Project: Meatloaf Mk II for now, because Sundowns and their bloody Christmas Tree formation have caused us problems in the past. If they want to use a central midfield 5 then go for it, because we’ll be using a defensive triangle in a team packed together like sardines. Good luck finding space in the centre this time. Komo starts in net of course, protected by a back 4 of Ayanda Nkili, Mike Kakuba, Isaac Sohna and Sello Japhta, Juno sits in front of them with Sinbad and Joël Soumahoro at centre midfield, while Mandla Masango and Luther Singh will play as right winger and left inside forward respectively behind Hicham Aidir.
The visitors have the better start of the 2 teams and actually do find some space to work with in the centre. 13 minutes in Motupa drives through the middle and shoots from 20 yards, but Komo clutches the ball to his chest. I tell the lads to try to keep hold of the ball so that we can take control.
It works. We build up a bit of a head of steam and win a corner at the 20 minute mark. Juno whips it in and the ball’s headed clear as far as Masango, who chests it down and half volleys it venomously towards the top corner, but the keeper Khuzwayo tips it onto the post.
Motupa dribbles forwards once again a few minutes later into the left hand side of the penalty area, but drags his shot wide of the near post. That’s the last real action of the first half though and we go in for half time with the scores still level.
It takes just over 5 minutes of the second half for the deadlock to be broken though. Sello Japhta gets clear down the left wing and drills a cross in to the 6 yard box, and Luther Singh arrives to tuck the ball into the net and put us ahead.
Sundowns, conceding defeat with their Christmas tree, change to a 3-5-2 formation. I see no reason to make major changes and simply move Singh and Masango back to be wide midfielders. I also put them on man marking duty against Sundowns’ wingers.
On the hour mark Masango dribbles down the right flank and sends another low cross into the box. This time Hicham Aidir’s there to tap it in. Suddenly we’ve started to really click. A few minutes later though, Mosadi gets free down the right wing after Japhta’s caught out of postion and pulls the ball back from the byline for Andria, who slots in for 2-1.
A couple of minutes later and in what’s becoming a frantic and end-to-end second half, Joël chips the ball out to Japhta, who’s bombing up the left wing once again. He drills in yet another low cross and this one deflects off Mabuza before trickling past the keeper. 3-1 Santos. I bring on the more defensively minded Gugu Gogotya for Soumahoro in an attempt to protect our lead.
With a quarter of an hour to play, Ntuli gets away down the right wing for Sundowns and squares the ball for Andria 12 yards out, who blasts it low into the net. We defend resiliently for the last 10 minutes and come away from a very even game with a commendable 3 points.
That win sends us 8th on 32 points. There’s only actually 8 points between 4th placed Golden Arrows and 11th placed Kaizer Chiefs (Who have 4 or 5 games in hand over the rest of the League) and with 8 games still to play and 24 points still to win I reckon we can push even further up the league from here.