The opening weekend of the new season is a special time. On paper at least, everyone is equal. From the big spenders to the small fry, everyone can claim to have the same aspirations for the months ahead. Each set of supporters can dare to dream that this will be their season. They may know deep down that their squad is not quite as good as they hoped, but there is that belief that some of the new faces will really be something special or some of the old faces may just have that special season. Experience has shown that this feeling lasts for barely the first 90 minutes at Ajax Cape Town, so Saturday night was nothing new to the faithful that gathered to watch the side yet again sleepwalk into another campaign.
This time the slow start come straight off the back of an excellent pre-season, in which the team collected a series of impressive results on the road in a tour up north. After the slow starts that halted the sides progress in both halves of last season, this tour was a bold and necessary move by the club. If it had been followed up with a competitive fixture last weekend in the MTN8 maybe this opening PSL game would have been approached with more intensity. As it turned out we got to see the sort of game we see maybe 15 times each season. Lots of possession, players looking comfortable on the ball, a game seemingly under control, but no final product to convert the dominance into points.
In a game that was not a good advert for the art of goalkeeping it was Brandon Petersen that set the tone with an awful mistake halfway through the first half. Against a side known for their willingness to play on the break he anticipated a counter attack perfectly by racing out of his box to intercept the ball. Only he knows why he then tried to pass to a colleague instead of clearing it to safety. Some may call the resulting ricochet off Lerato Lamola into the unguarded net a fluke or a freak goal. Some might call the keeper unlucky. Other more experienced observers will know that in the entire history of the game of football nobody has ever scored a goal from the stands, and that is where Petersen should have deposited the ball.
Credit must be given to the side for getting back into the game. We saw a first ever PSL goal for Rivaldo Coetzee – a man who we would not have expected to see in an AjaxCT shirt again let alone celebrating a goal. After missing so much training he only lasted a few more minutes, but after months of bad feeling between club and player the coaching staff must be congratulated on getting him back, motivated and integrated into the team. It may yet prove to be a brief stay at the club, but it is rare for players that go on strike to successfully come back to the team they let down. This says much about the man management and judgement of the coaching staff, and is perhaps also a sign of a more mature approach from the player himself.
The game then entered the most disappointing phase. With virtually all the second half left there was no big push to go on and force the winning goal. The feeling you often get with watching AjaxCT is that the players are content to look good on the ball and play it around intelligently amongst each other, with the results not really mattering. When they do work the ball into dangerous areas of the field each player seems to want to take one touch too many or take on one man more before attempting to shoot. It was encouraging to see that new signing Sedwyn George was prepared to shoot on sight in what was a good debut. He was surprisingly swapped for Tashreeq Morris and the side never looked likely to score from that point on. It is hard not to feel sorry for Morris, who looked to be emerging as a key player in the side before his serious injury in the 2015 Nedbank Cup Final. Maybe he needs time on loan at a different level to finally regain his form and confidence.
The final moments of the game clearly indicated that the players were satisfied with the outcome of the evening. Four minutes to go and a free kick just inside the AjaxCT half was played back to the keeper rather than played forward. It was almost intercepted as the keeper and defenders then played it around. Even worse was to come in injury time when a free kick was awarded in a similar position. With the opportunity for one last attack the players hung around for so long that Mdabuka was eventually booked for time wasting. Time wasting in the final moments of the first game of the season when you are being held to a draw at home. To make matters worse when it was eventually played Morris won a corner, but there was no time left for it to be taken. We missed one last chance to test a keeper that had flapped at everything since the second half began.
The technical skills of the players on show are good. The calmness on the ball and range of passing is often impressive. The ability to control a game is there. Once again however the desire and belief that they can win these sort of games seemed to be missing. How do we convert this potential into results? Even after just one game it is clear that once again this is the problem that must be solved before another season drifts into obscurity.