Tasty MTN8 semifinals take centre stage

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane directs his team from the sidelines Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane admits the MTN8 has provided something of a distraction in recent seasons as another cup campaign looms.

The Brazilians are preparing for the first leg of their semifinal away at Cape Town City on Saturday, but the coach has promised that from next year they will be able to give the competition full focus. 

Sundowns have not lifted the first piece of silverware on offer in the South African season since 2007, while for Mosimane it has been a 14-year wait to be on the winners podium.

The competition has usually fallen around the time of the final group games and the knockout rounds in the CAF Champions League in recent years, and Mosimane admits that has taken precedence.

It could be the same this year, with a must-win home Champions League tie against Horoya on Tuesday sandwiched between the two difficult legs against last year's beaten finalists City. 

But a change in the timing of the continental club competitions that will see the 2019-20 campaign kick off in August with the early rounds -- where Sundowns, if they are involved, would likely get a bye -- will change the dynamic.

"We will give MTN8 support from next year at Mamelodi Sundowns, because we have short-changed them a little bit sometimes," Mosimane told reporters.

"We tried against Wits to win it [in the final in 2016] but because of the circumstances of the Champions League quarterfinals and semifinals coming in there...

"But we are heading into a new, healthy programme, which is good for me. It was that kind of thing that brought me to talking about [taking a] sabbatical, because you cannot go on like we have for the last five, six years.

"Now [next year] we can have at least a good break and come back and give the MTN8 the credibility that it deserves." 
Mosimane knows the quality of the team his side faces at the weekend, though they have won on their last two visits to Cape Town.

"We play against a very good team, highly organised. They play from the back, they build up well. They have a good coach [Benni McCarthy], so it's not going to be easy." 

McCarthy says that the loss of stalwarts Percy Tau and Khama Billiat has affected Sundowns this season as they stutter through the early weeks of the campaign, but says there is enough quality in the squad to eventually provide cover, even if it has taken some time for the likes of new signing Jose Ali Meza to settle.

"Psychologically it is a big loss for them and their new players haven't really settled in and found their feet," McCarthy said.

"But it still doesn't stop them from having the same quality that they had and the players that they have brought in have foreign experience, so they could be better equipped than what the likes of Percy and Billiat gave them.

"The strength with those two was that they were both lightening-quick and they were both deadly in front of goal. That's why they were able to punish most teams.

"With time, once these new guys settle in and find their feet, I think they [Sundowns] are going to be as clinical ... or probably even more so ... than what they were because they did make some exceptional buys."

City won their first three games against Sundowns, but lost the last two, even if they were the better side in a 2-1 Nedbank Cup home loss in April.

SuperSport United vs. Kaizer Chiefs

The first leg of the second semifinal will be played on Sunday, when defending champions SuperSport United host Kaizer Chiefs, the latter seeking a first piece of silverware in more than three seasons. 

After a disappointing 0-0 draw at Baroka FC last time out, Italian coach Giovanni Solinas welcomed the opportunity to have a full week of training with his squad without matches for the first time since the start of the campaign.

"Fortunately, this week we have a full week and we practiced drills to fix our mistakes. I am very happy because the players have put the effort in during the training sessions," Solinas says.

"Their focus on the job is top, so I am very happy." 
Chiefs completed the signings of attacking midfielder Lebogang Manyama and defender Mario Booysen this week, but Solinas confirmed neither would be match-fit to play on Sunday.

As ever, he says his side will be going all-out for the win, rather than playing for an away draw to take into the second leg.

"When you play or work for Kaizer Chiefs, we must win every game. This is a big club and it's not possible to select the games. We try to win every game, every competition.

"SuperSport coach has a fantastic coach [Kaitano Tembo]. It's a difficult game for us in every situation. SuperSport is strong physically and good tactically." 

Tembo was assistant coach to Eric Tinkler when SuperSport lifted the MTN8 last season with a penalty shootout victory over Cape Town City in the final.

"I was part of the technical team which won this tournament last year. It's also a bit of pressure to try to maintain that," he admitted. "This game is important for us because we need to try to defend the trophy.

"They have a very huge following and that motivates them. But at the same time it gives us an advantage. If we frustrate them and try to turn the crowd against them, we need to take advantage of that."

SuperSport and Chiefs have met three times previously in the MTN8, twice in finals in 2004 and 2006, with one win apiece, and also in the quarterfinal stage last season when a Jeremy Brockie goal handed Matsatsantsa a win.

Tembo says you cannot read too much into the past and for his side it is just about maintaining their standards.

"I haven't thought about it because those are past results and what we need to focus on is now. It is a cup game and those are unpredictable," he said. "It is important for us to get a good result that we can manage when we play the second leg."

The second legs of the semifinals will be played on September 1-2, with the final scheduled for September 29.