It did not take long for reality to come crashing back into view after the Christmas period had brought so many positive vibes to AjaxCT fans. Friday night saw a well-deserved victory for Maritzburg United in a game that showed us there was still a lot of work to do to preserve the club’s PSL status. There has been a lot of hype regarding the changes at the club in the past two weeks, but the reality is that Mushin Ertugal has had only five training sessions with these players. His marquee signing is still awaiting a work permit and for the same reason he also had to manage this game from a position in the stands. Sadly, as yet more points slip away, any meaningful change is likely to take time.
And yet it all started so well. A wonderfully worked early goal for Tashreeq Morris after excellent work from Lakay and Malepe was followed up by a stinging shot from Losper that almost doubled the lead. It was the start we had been hoping for and it is so frustrating that the players seemed to go back into their shells and not continue to take the game to their opponents. Stanley Menzo and now Ertugal have talked so much about the lack of confidence and belief in recent times. It is understandable given the long run of poor results that the core of this team has now experienced, under a succession of coaches. It is going to take more than one excellent goal to get the belief back. The longer the gamer went on the more nervous the players seemed to become. The passing was again poor and the tempo was too slow to worry the opposition.
The coach made several changes, with three players making their first starts after being out with injury. Two of them, Malepe and Losper, faded out of the game in the second half and maybe even Brandon Petersen might have reacted more sharply to the shot that beat him for the equaliser given more game time. Question marks will remain over Soumaila Ouattara, with the defender from Burkina Faso having a mixed debut, but it is interesting that he has gone straight into the side after being overlooked by Stanley Menzo since his arrival in September. The one real standout performance was that of Fagrie Lakay, who after helping create the goal was a danger every time he touched the ball. He may not be here for the long-term, but he is surely going to be a crucial member of the team in the weeks ahead.
It is all very easy to judge with the benefit of hindsight, but as we look back on the match the main question that could be asked is why was the formation changed at half time? With an injury to Pietersen forcing a change, instead of going like for like and bringing on Isaac Nhlapo the coach brought on another wide player and changed to a 3-5-2. Clearly the players needed time to settle into the new formation, but they did not get it. There was much hand waving and pointing as Mosadi instantly failed to track back allowing the visitors to advance down their left wing and equalise just forty seconds into the second half. The winning goal was a free header from a corner. An unforgivable and embarrassing error that could not be attributed to the new formation, although the corner was won when Maritzburg again exploited the gap that had opened up between Ouattara and Mosadi.
It is easy to be critical of the changes made at half time, but the fact is AjaxCT were lucky to go in a goal up. Maritzburg were a constant threat and had opened the home defence up on a number of occasions. Valid penalty shouts were waved away, Petersen produced one fine save and only a last ditch clearance from Malepe had prevented a certain goal. Previous coaches may have been tempted to continue to try and defend it out. At least Ertugal was proactive here. He saw the writing on the wall and tried something different in an attempt to create an attacking threat. The tiring midfield and confused defence prevented it from working on this occasion, but we should not complain about a coach showing an attacking mindset after what we have witnessed in recent times.
When Stanley Menzo took control last season he also lost his first home game 2-1 to Maritzburg United. That was a real heartbreaker as Deolin Mekoa won it in the fourth minute of stoppage time after a good AjaxCT performance. Remember how the players sank to the floor and looked as low as they had ever been. In the following weeks, as the coach got his message across, the team took 15 points from the next six games. That run included the season’s highlight – a 2-0 home win over Sundowns. A win on Tuesday may seem unlikely, but it happened last year. A bad situation can change very quickly. We have seen it before. We need to see it again.