January can be make or break for Chiefs and Sundowns in PSL title race
There will be 39 matches played in the Absa Premiership in January, which represents a sizeable chunk of the 240-game season to be played over just four weeks.
It is likely to have a massive influence on both ends of the table and could, in many ways, be the defining period of the campaign for a number of clubs.
Kaizer Chiefs could go a long way towards almost sealing the league title if they have a good month and their rivals falter, but conversely they could also be reined in and their once commanding lead at the top of the table whittled away to nothing.
They would be likely to signal a momentum shift in the title race from which the Naturena side may not recover.
Ernst Middendorp’s side will play five games in only 21 days, offering little time for recovery or tactical planning. It will also be a stern test of their fitness and the wider squad, asking questions of their quality beyond the first choice XI.
The run gets under way on Saturday when they travel to SuperSport United for a difficult away day at Mbombela Stadium, a fixture that could set the tone.
A victory would be a massive boost to their chances against one of their title rivals. A defeat could set the wheels in motion for a poor January.
They follow that up on Wednesday next week with a tough home clash against physical Highlands Park, who certainly have the ability to surprise.
That is followed by a home game four days later against what should be a resurgent Cape Town City now they have a number of their walking wounded back on the park, before they head to Thohoyandou to clash with Cavin Johnson’s Black Leopards on January 18.
Johnson has a happy knack against Chiefs down the years and he will recognise the opportunity to create an upset at his new club.
Chiefs close the month away against former boss Steve Komphela’s Lamontville Golden Arrows, who have already beaten Mamelodi Sundowns at home this season and are no pushovers.
It is a heady run of fixtures, but if Chiefs can come through relatively unscathed they will feel they have taken a giant step towards winning their first Premiership title since the 2014-15 season.
Sundowns must mix domestic matters with continental ambition and that means an eye-watering schedule of seven matches in the month – including three in the Caf Champions League.
They are away at AmaZulu on Saturday, before a home meeting with Bidvest Wits on Tuesday that is a real test for coach Pitso Mosimane against a potential title rival.
They then welcome Algerian side USM Alger to Pretoria on January 11, before another huge domestic league game against Orlando Pirates four days later.
As if that wasn’t enough, they then travel to meet SuperSport United on January 19, before back-to-back Champions League clashes at Petro Atletico (Jan. 25) and at home to Wydad Casablanca the following weekend.
It is not quite an impossible schedule, but certainly a hugely challenging one and it is likely they will falter somewhere along the line. If they don’t, it will be an amazing effort.
Pirates may be out of the title race, but how the team perform in January will be hugely important for new coach Josef Zinnbauer in terms of winning over sections of the Ghost who are skeptical about his appointment.
If he can get the side on a roll it could be important for next season in terms of building momentum and confidence, as well as winning over the players as to his methods.
They start the month with two away games at Bloemfontein Celtic on Saturday and then Polokwane City next Tuesday.
That is followed by three home games in a row, the first against Sundowns (January 15), then Highlands Park three days later and finally AmaZulu (January 25).
Wits have six games in January, including two in the Confederation Cup, though astonishingly five of them are away.
They meet Stellenbosch FC in Cape Town on Saturday, before the short trip to Sundowns next Tuesday.
They must then travel to neutral Egypt to face Libyan side Al-Nasr in the Confederation Cup, before returning home to host Bloemfontein Celtic on January 15.
They will return to the Mother City to meet Cape Town City on January 18, before travelling to Guinea to face Horoya on January 26.
Given the tight nature of the relegation fight, there are plenty of key battles at the foot of the table as well.
Bottom side Polokwane City host resurgent Chippa United on Saturday, while Baroka FC travel to Cape Town City a day later.
Baroka welcome Polokwane City on January 11, before Bakgaga make the journey to Cape Town to face Stellenbosch FC six days later. Polokwane do likewise on January 25.