title race wide open



That is how the 2009-10 Absa Premiership title race can best be described.

Unlike last season, where the contest was a two-horse race between eventual champions SuperSport United and Orlando Pirates, the race for the prized league title is now wide open.

While United, who beat Pirates on goal difference to claim the much sought-after silverware, can still defend their title for a third season on the trot, irresistible Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs and dark horses Santos still have a chance to win the championship, which is likely to be decided on February 28, the last day of the campaign.

Although United's spokesperson David "Mazolman" Skosana is still adamant they will defend their title and pocket the R10million that goes with the crown, Matsatsantsa will need enough poise to attain their objective.

But United will play their remaining six matches against clubs that failed to beat them in the first round and this could be enough motivation for the Tshwane side.

They won four matches and drew two against these clubs and the wins included a priceless 3-0 drubbing of the stuttering Orlando Pirates at Loftus.

Pirates host the second- round tie at Orlando Stadium on February 3.

The Ghost are happy about the home-ground advantage but they are likely to leave this venue disheartened because Bucs have a tendency to disappoint, no matter where they play. They are not called "The Heart Breakers" in some quarters for nothing.

The Buccaneers are fifth on the log, 10 points off the pace, and their title hopes appear to be in tatters.

Gavin Hunt's United should not battle to see off strugglers AmaZulu and Bidvest Wits, who they beat 4-2 and 2-1 in the first round.

Free State Stars, who have been an eyesore this season, don't look like they can avenge the 1-0 home defeat against the defending champions in the first round.

Platinum Stars have also been ordinary but they will be hoping that their supporters give them an extra spur at home after managing a 1-all draw in Atteridgeville.

Like the other clubs, Santos will have to go for the jugular if they harbour hopes of upsetting Matsatsantsa in Cape Town after their lacklustre display in the first round.

They drew 2-all at Super Stadium, but Santos earned that point through a stroke of luck. United played the last 36 minutes of that game with 10 men after referee Peter Mabuza showed their inspirational defender Bongani Khumalo a straight red card in the 54th minute.

Their numerical disadvantage did not preclude them from scoring their second goal through Morgan Gould in the 70th minute. Santos's equaliser came in Mabuza's stoppage time through Phikolethu Spelman.

Boebie "Mzala" Solomons and his troops, who are fourth on the log, are aware that any further slip-ups will be suicidal in the run-in after losing 1-0 in their last match against a Jomo Cosmos side that is fighting against the drop.

Erwin Isaacs has a crucial role to play for the Cape side in the remaining matches.

United not only boast a knowledgeable coach in Hunt, but also have have shown gritty resistance in the campaign and you can't doubt their potential to defend their title.

Daine Klate, Anthony Laffor, Glen Salmon, Jabulani Maluleke and Morgan Gould form part of United's backbone.

United's mouthpiece Skosana yesterday dismissed suggestions that Sundowns' reawakening and the fact that Hristo Stoichkov's side have a game in hand over them have created consternation in the United camp.

"We have the points in the bag and they have a game in hand and we are not worried," Skosana said. Nevertheless there is no doubt that Matsatsantsa are under immense pressure from their cross-town rivals, especially after Downs pipped them 1-0 last week.

If both teams win all their remaining matches they will both finish on 65 points, but United will win the title if they maintain their superior goal difference.

Stoichkov could be forgiven for talking about their chances of winning the league title. They have done enough in their recent matches to be counted among the firm favourites to claim the championship.

Katlego Mphela is in terrific form and should not struggle to score against the seven clubs they will play in their remaining matches, especially against Ezenkosi and Moroka Swallows, who have been benign at the back.

They will also play against Bloemfontein Celtic, Platinum Stars, Arrows, Ajax Cape Town and Santos.

Chiefs, who have shown a great deal of recovery, will finish with 59 points if they win all their matches. Santos will finish with 57 if they win theirs.

Nkosinathi Nhleko and Josta Dladla should carry the hopes of Amakhosi in their crucial matches.

While it's anybody's guess as to who will eventually clinch the championship, United are widely tipped to defend it, if their consistency is anything to go by.

I bet my last cent on Matsatsantsa winning the league.