The lengthy break due to the MTN8 final and the Fifa week was a welcome distraction for Orlando Pirates and Stellenbosch FC, who meet on Saturday night at Orlando Stadium in the opening round of the Telkom Knockout.
The two teams have had underwhelming starts to the season for contrasting reasons.
What was meant to be a season of delivery for Pirates has turned into a season of consolidating after the abrupt resignation of Micho Sredojevic. Rhulani Mokwena stepped in to stabilise the ship, but the club’s underlying problems were exposed and made his head coach debut a baptism of fire.
Pirates have conceded eight goals in their last three matches. The break offered them a chance to tighten things at the back and turn their season around.
The Knockout is a good opportunity to do that. This is the tournament that would have made life easier for Sredojevic and Mokwena had they won it last year. Pirates lost in the final to Baroka FC.
This is a shot at redemption and an opportunity for Mokwena to endear himself to ‘The Ghost’. It’s vital for the club to progress further in this competition, as an early elimination – as was the case in the CAF Champions League and MTN8 – would be disastrous.
For Stellebosch, this is their shot at the big time. The rookies will be playing in their first knockout competition.
The 2-0 win over Polokwane City in their last league match – their first victory of the season – will give them confidence going into their clash with Pirates.
“It was tough in the beginning,” Stellenbosch coach Steve Barker said. “The pace in the PSL is a lot quicker. We did struggle, but against Polokwane City we started with seven players who were in the National First Division. That was massive for us, and that’s good. They are finding their feet now.”
Stellenbosch struggled in the beginning of the season, unable to cope with the pace, which wasn’t helped by them not being able to play at home. The side from the Winelands region have been playing their home games in Cape Town as Idas Valley Stadium was deemed not good enough to host Premiership matches.
Stellenbosch struggled when they couldn’t play there in the NFD, but when they had their vociferous crowd, they won promotion. This has led to them being tipped for relegation.
But the knockout competition is a sprint, not a marathon, which gives the players an opportunity to make a quick buck and write their names in the club’s history.
“I tell my players about the story of the donkey (when I think about the people who doubt us),” Barker said.
“The donkey was dying in a well, the farmer came, and he didn’t want to save the donkey because he is too much problem. He got all the farmers and they just started throwing the sand on the donkey. The donkey shrugged the sand off, and the more sand, he shrugged it off – the higher he rose.
“I tell the players that whatever criticism they endure, we shake it off and we use the criticism to grow, climb out of that well and be the last to laugh.”