With their CAF commitments now well behind them, Pitso Mosimane and his technical team have been able to put all their focus and resources into the domestic campaign as they look to wrestle back the league trophy they let slip last season.
A defeat to Chippa United in the Last 16 of the Telkom Knockout at the end of October may have raised concern about the missed opportunity to add to Chlookop’s bulging trophy cabinet, yet that defeat may have been a blessing in disguise, and the catalyst to the Brazilian’s rip-roaring form since: following that narrow 1-0 loss, Sundowns have won four of their last five matches, conceding just once as they jumped from ninth in the standings to the summit (see graph below).
As has been noted in the past, games in hand do not necessarily translate into points on the board, yet Sundowns have ensured they will not be left behind in the title chase and now lead the way, their victory over Golden Arrows on Sunday afternoon leaving them two points above their closest rivals Orlando Pirates with three games in hand.
Consistency has been the key ingredient for Sundowns over the past month, with the same spine of players doing duty and delivering for the club.
For the first two matches of their recent five-match unbeaten streak – against Orlando Pirates and Bidvest Wits – Mosimane kept the same starting line-ups, before making minimal changes to his side over the next three games: Khama Billiat replaced Thapelo Morena in the starting XI against Chippa United; Themba Zwane was then brought in for Oupa Manyisa as Anele Ngcongca made way for the returning Morena, while on Sunday, the only change from the previous line-up was Manyisa’s return for the injured Billiat.
Hence eight players – Denis Onyango, Teboho Langerman, Bangaly Soumahoro, Motjeka Madisha, Hlompho Kekana, Tiyani Mabunda, Sibusiso Vilakazi and Percy Tau – have all been consistently picked over all those five unbeaten games, growing in confidence and forming that tightly-knit, cohesive unit which makes Sundowns that much harder to beat.
Another consistent feature about Masandawana is their goalscoring prowess: despite still playing catch-up, they have scored 18 goals in the league (the highest of any team) with a goal difference of +10 – the next-best goal difference is +5, belonging to eighth-placed Maritzburg United.
Strikingly, Sundowns have only failed to score in one of their 11 league matches this campaign.
Mathematically, SuperSport United are Sundowns’ strongest title contenders at this stage: currently seven points behind the Brazilians, they have three games in hand, with a chance of being two points ahead once both have played the same amount of matches.
But again, playing catch-up and winning each game in hand is easier said than done. SuperSport have already started showing signs of cracking, needing a late equaliser to salvage a point against Cape Town City on the weekend following a host of fluffed chances in their midweek goalless draw against Pirates – four valuable points lost as their Pretoria rivals steamed ahead.
Looking ahead, Sundowns face off against mid-table Maritzburg before seeing out the year against TKO finalists Bloemfontein Celtic and an inconsistent Cape Town City side. They will start 2018 against relegation candidates Polokwane City and Ajax Cape Town.
SuperSport, meanwhile, are on the road for three games in a row as they end 2017 with fixtures against Free State Stars, Baroka FC and Celtic, and start the new year with a bang against Kaizer Chiefs.
One thing you can be sure of in the PSL is the unpredictable nature of our league, yet with no distractions, in goal-scoring and winning form, and with just one opponent in the top four (Celtic) to face over the next five games, Sundowns could very well make the second half of the season a one-horse race to title glory.