Kicking off week two of our analysis is Bethlehem-based Free State Stars.
After finishing the 2016/17 season in 14th place, level on points with relegation play-off contenders Baroka, an overhaul was needed at Free State Stars ahead of the new campaign. Former Stellenbosch FC coach Sammy Troughton was named as the new coach, yet made way after just two games as preferred candidate Luc Eymael was handed the reins.
After two losses in his first two league games in charge, Eymael’s Ea Lla Koto ended week four in 15th spot on the log before finally registering their first win of the season on match day five, a 3-2 victory over Polokwane City. Two more back-to-back victories followed, with just two losses over their next 10 games as Stars continued their steady rise up the table, sitting a season-high second after their victory over Cape Town City in early January.
That good mid-season form would ultimately save them in the end, as with their Nedbank Cup distraction towards the tail end of the campaign, Stars won none of their last seven league games, losing four in the process, yet still finished well above expectations in sixth place on the final Absa Premiership standings, level on points with fifth-placed City.
Stars’ Telkom Knockout campaign lasted just one game, as they were beaten 4-2 after extra-time by eventual champions Bidvest Wits in the first round.
Yet it was a far different affair in this year’s Nedbank Cup, as Ea Lla Koto earned their first topflight trophy in 24 years in a fairytale cup campaign which earned them a spot in next year’s CAF Confederation Cup for the first time in their history.
Needing extra-time to overcome minnows Super Eagles in the first round, Stars then got the better of Chippa United 2-1 before requiring penalties to advance at the expense of Ubuntu FC in the quarter-finals.
A drama-filled 2-0 victory over Kaizer Chiefs in Durban secured their spot in last month’s final at Cape Town Stadium, where Goodman Dlamini’s first-half strike handed his side the memorable cup triumph in their 1-0 win over Maritzburg United.
Stars scored 29 league goals in their 30 games, one of nine teams to score less than a goal per game on average. They had the joint-lowest number of penalty area touches per match (1.4) while taking the highest percentage of shots outside the box (55.3%) of all 16 teams in the league.
Stars ended the charts second-worst for shot accuracy, number of passes and passing accuracy per match, while finishing third-worst in terms of average ball possession per game (44.7%).
Areas of improvement
Stars’ relatively successful season seemed a result of a collective effort rather than individual brilliance, with Sinethemba Jantjie, Nhlanhla Vilakazi and Mohammed Anas some of the star performers, the latter finishing as the club’s top scorer, yet netted just six times across all competitions the entire season. Should they want to take this success further, bearing in mind that a tough continental challenge also awaits, the squad will need to be reinforced in all departments, especially considering the potential loss of a number of key players to bigger clubs following the success of the past campaign.