Under Tinkler, the Team of Choice have a spark of life and will be confident they can climb out of relegation but for Stars, where will their goals come from, asks Roger De Sa.
In the previous campaign, they were the surprise packages in the Absa Premiership but this season Free State Stars and Maritzburg United have been so awful that they are staring relegation right in the face.
The two teams are without a doubt living up to the common phenomenon that whenever minnows over-perform in one season they dramatically fall off a cliff in the next.
Currently, Free State Stars are 15th with 20 points after managing to salvage a draw at home against defensive Black Leopards, a match they would have hoped to win with home advantage. Stars’ remaining games are fairytale as they have to go through SuperSport (A), AmaZulu (H), Highlands (A), Pirates (A), Baroka (H), Arrows (A), Chiefs (A) and lastly title contenders Sundowns (H).
For the past few seasons (with the exception of last season), Free State Stars have become accustomed to flirting dangerously with relegation. Under Luc Eymael last season they finished a satisfactory sixth place including being crowned Nedbank Champions. However, this season they have been unable to reach that peak and Eymael was replaced by Serbian Nikola Kavazovic. The last time Ea Lla Koto were relegated was in 2006.
Stars have also not recovered from losing key figures Nhlanhla Vilakazi and Siphelele Mthembu. Ea Lla Koto’s aging squad that includes Paulus Masehe, 35, and Rooi Mahamutsa, 37, seem to have little left in the tank this season. Despite the high possibility of being relegated, coach Kavazovic remains hopeful that his troops will weather the storm, unlikely as it appears to be.
“There`s no use playing good football, dominating it and not collecting those needed three points. I honestly think that has been our problem throughout the season,“ Kavazovic said in a telephonic interview with The Weekly this week.
For United, the Team of Choice captured the imagination last season with the youthful exuberance while Stars were one of the hardest running teams under Belgian Luc Eymael. Things clicked under coach Fadlu Davids, who managed to squeeze the best out of Bevan Fransman, Siyanda Xulu, Lebohang Maboe, and Siphesihle Ndlovu. In the off-season, the departure of the highly influential Maboe and Fransman changed the dynamics of the team and they never got going thereafter.
Keletso Makgalwa, Yannick Zakri, and Keagan Buchanan were roped in but their arrival had little impact as the team faltered along until Davids was fired.
Only recently under Eric Tinkler is the team showing signs of a revival, with the January signings of Thabiso Kutumela and Judas Moseamedi being the catalysts.
Roger de Sa, who experienced relegation with Bidvest Wits in 2005 and Platinum Stars last season, said it’s not easy for smaller teams to play at a high level for two seasons in a row. "It takes a lot out of a squad to punch above their weight and have to do that for two seasons," said De Sa.
"I think under Eric, Maritzburg have a spark of life and will be confident they can climb out of relegation. I’m not sure about Stars. I don’t know where their goals will come from and obviously, their coach is new to SA football," he noted.
Kavazovic, who confessed after the Free State derby that it has become clear to him that South Africans don`t care much about the style of play but rather points on the board, said Stars still have a lot to offer, despite scepticism from some people.
“We are playing beautiful football but I`ve realised that fans here do not care much about that, but goals. However, our goal right not is to avoid relegation and secure our spot in the league next season,“ said Kavazovic.
The Serbian stated that comes next season, football fans will appreciate Stars more as they plan to display their style of football, accompanied by points as the goal is to finish in top four.