When he agreed to take on the rescue project at AjaxCT, Mushin Ertugal must have sat down and made a plan. Perhaps he has a spreadsheet on his laptop, perhaps he has it written down in a notepad or perhaps it is just stored in the back of his mind. But, he probably would have had a minimum points total in mind from the remaining fixtures and would have targeted certain games to get them. This week saw two contrasting fixtures on paper, with the first probably considered unlikely to win, but the second was an absolutely must-win pressure cooker of a fixture.
In situations like this, any points from a visit from Mamelodi Sundowns would be considered a bonus. It is true that the title favourites are not on their best form right now, but it was a game that came just a little too early for the new look AjaxCT side that Ertugal is trying to build. Still the home side gave it a good go, taking the lead with a fine finish from Lakay after excellent awareness from Morris to release him with a quick free kick. There was a sense of urgency and belief in the home sides play that we had not seen for most of the season. Despite the defeat, and the slump to bottom of the log when Wits won 24 hours later, we all left the ground with the feeling that things were about to change.
It perhaps put even more pressure on the side to perform in the must-win fixture on Friday night. Despite the attacking formation, with the first appearance of Tendai Ndoro, it was a very flat 45 minutes. The disappointment of creating so little was compounded by the despair of conceding the opening goal late in the half. The visitors had threatened on a number of occaisions and finally got their reward when Zama Rambuwane made the most of the space the home side gifted to him to head home. Suddenly this was looking like a game we had seen played out so many times before in recent months.
The one thing that has changed so obviously since the new coach took charge is that he will not let a game drift away. For the second Friday in a row we saw a half time substitution and change of formation. Last week it went horribly wrong against Maritzburg, but this time around it could just have been the decision that has saved the season. The replacement of the dangerous Lakay with the more defensive minded Mdabuka did not seem the obvious, or best move, and was not well received in the crowd. It was actually a masterstroke.
The formation shifted to a 5-3-2, with Julies and Kammies pushing on as wing backs. It gave the side more width, while holding the centre of the field. The formation took some time to gel and the first 15 minutes of the half were uneventful. Even the normally animated Ertugal was sat arms folded on the bench. Make no mistake, this was a bleak situation. Imagine what must have gone through his mind after removing a dangerous attacking threat when he was chasing a game at home against the side he needed most desperately to catch. If the team had conceded again while the new formation was settling in and the game had been lost, with three of the top four sides to come in the games to follow – just imagine the mood going into this week. This was a brave move.
As time progressed the new formation started to work, particularly on the right side where Kammies was having another magnificent game. Just five first team performances for the 19-year-old and yet he has the maturity and confidence of a seasoned veteran. The danger started to come from his side of the field and suddenly a solid few minutes of attacking possession ended with a spectacular overhead effort from Ndoro that finally tested the visiting keeper. Shortly afterward AjaxCT really were back in contention. Another attack from the right, a ball right across the box and Julies was left free to strike the post before Malepe turned the rebound home. You could almost feel the relief wash around the long-suffering supporters.
The other advantage of the new formation was that it brought Morris and Ndoro closer together. They began to link up well and both men found themselves more in the game. We have got so used to seeing one man up front in the typical 4-3-3 formation favoured by so many previous coaches. Remember when RDS was in change and he told the press that, “Having two strikers on at the same time is just a disaster”. It certainly was a few minutes later for the man who was now present as the visiting coach. A ball into the area was well controlled by Ndoro, laid off to Morris and then blasted first time into the roof the net for an absolutely glorious goal. There was even time for Ndoro to get on the scoresheet himself, in what had become a performance of absolute dominance by the home team. Those that doubted the half time changes – and I was certainly one of them – have spent the weekend eating humble pie. But it has tasted oh so good.
I do not think we can underestimate the importance of the second half of this game, and in particular those last 20 minutes when AjaxCT were outstanding. The celebrations by the players toward the supporters were more emotional than usual. They were joined by coaching staff and even the CEO, and it felt like a huge weight had been lifted. There has been a lot of time, effort and money invested by the club over the holiday period in an attempt to turn this team around. Defeat here was almost unimaginable and would have left the players with a mountain to climb. There is still a difficult battle remaining ahead, but for the first time in ages they look well equipped to win it.