Two wins, two clean sheets, three different scorers, six points and suddenly AjaxCT are flying up the log. That was the week we have been waiting for all season. In fact Stanley Menzo’s record as a coach now stands at a very impressive 10 points from 5 games – a 2 point per game average is of course championship form. I talked about a “new manager bounce” a couple of weeks ago, but really this is beyond our expectations.
The victory over Mamelodi Sundowns in mid-week was definitely something we would have hoped for rather than expected. The reigning champions of the African continent are a formidable side and gave the revitalized AjaxCT side a really tough evening. I have no doubt that this would have been a nightmare to watch under the previous coach, but it was clear that Stanley Menzo has now moulded his vision onto this side. He has talked about the need to for the team to not lose its shape when possession is lost and it was clear on the night that this had been worked on. As both sides pushed for the opening the AjaxCT back four and midfield fell into position to deny space and push their opponents wide the moment they lost the ball. Even when youngster Grant Margeman came on to shore up the midfield in the second half he could be seen directing the play of those around him, while holding his own position. Great communication and awareness from someone making just his second ever substitute appearance.
The real hero of the night was the returning Rivaldo Coetzee. Booked in just the seventh minute of the game he spent the rest of the night on a disciplinary knife edge, while having to face the most threatening forward line on the African continent. In their previous game Sundowns scored five and the game after this they scored four. On this night, however, they came up against the might of an organised and disciplined defence that they simply had no way of breaking down. When Percy Tau did for once get the better of Rivaldo, and seemed certain to score, the AjaxCT man produced an astonishing tackle to deny him the opportunity. Tau was virtually in the six-yard box and Coetzee had been seemingly left for dead behind him. The timing and confidence of his recovery was incredible for a man on a yellow card working inside his own penalty area. There are probably not many occasions when fans leave the ground after a victory enthusing about a defender and his tackling, but this was that game. Well done to Mark Maymabela for giving his man of the match award to Rivaldo. Presumably the match adjudicator was the only person in the stadium not watching the remarkable performance from the AjaxCT and Bafana defender.
We got to see a very different game on Saturday night as Golden Arrows parked their bus at Athlone Stadium. With the resurgence in the AjaxCT side it seems our opponents have taken notice and have decided it’s best to play for a point. That is an approach that the players have not had to experience this season, and it showed, as often the home sides build up play was slow and predictable. Nobody seemed to have the ability to drop a shoulder and beat their man and so for 85 minutes we watched two banks of four green shirted visitors sit deep, deny space and close down anything the home side could conjure up.
It took the return of Nathan Paulse to finally open the game up. Now playing in a protective face mask it clearly did not bother him as he just took up from where he had left off by holding up the ball and finally starting to turn the defenders. Under the previous coach there was a tendency to rely too much on Paulse, and in particular resort to long balls to the tall man up front. That remains an option and clearly it bothered the Arrows defence, with Siyabonga Dube handling the ball when challenging Paulse in the air, just five minutes from the end. Nathan stepped up to take the penalty himself, but produced a horrible effort that was easily saved. Fortunately he was well placed to tap home the rebound, a bit of luck we are well due this season. I think we can put that initial miss down to rustiness from the man who has been out with injury in recent weeks. Just a point of clarification – most media have reported that Paulse scored from the penalty spot, but a rebound technically counts as a goal from open play. The initial penalty will go down as being saved in the record books, so visiting goalkeeper Nkosingiphile Gumede can at least take something away from the evening. I doubt its much consolation, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a side that were so negative and unpleasant to watch for virtually the whole 90 minutes.
We have been looking up the table all season long so far, mainly because there was hardly anyone below us to look at. Suddenly we are looking up with genuine optimism that the log can be climbed. There have been none of those stupid errors in recent weeks, no gift goals, no visiting striker’s running in on goal unopposed – just a solid well organised side that suddenly looks very difficult to beat and has the respect of the opposition. Well done Stanley Menzo for turning this season around. New manager bounce – right now it’s more like a new manager tsunami.