Champions Sundowns take aim at AmaZulu in opener

Reigning DStv Premiership champions Mamelodi Sundowns will play host to AmaZulu at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane on Friday in the opening match of the 2021/22 season.

Kick-off is at 5pm CAT (SA, GMT+2).

Sundowns claimed an unprecedented fourth successive league title last season, finishing a comfortable 13 points clear of their nearest chasers.

The Tshwane side has now won a record 11 titles since the formation of the Premier Soccer League in 1996/97.

The Brazilians enjoyed strong home form last season, claiming 32 points from 15 matches. Their lone defeat as hosts (and their only loss in the whole league season) came against Kaizer Chiefs in April 2021.

But by no means will the Tshwane giants rest on their laurels. Sundowns have strengthened their squad with the likes of Thabiso Kutumela and Neo Maema joining from rival DStv Premiership clubs while Slovakia international Pavol Safranko has signed for the Brazilians from Romanian club Sepsi OSK.

“We want to create a team that is a nightmare to play against. A team that can hurt opponents in different ways, and we have got to create a culture for that,” said Sundowns co-coach Rulani Mokwena. “It is a mentality that we have got to create.”

Talking about this weekend’s fixture, Mokwena added: “They [AmaZulu] still have the same spine from last season. A very good side that plays very good football. They have a strong spine with very good players that are very well coached. We are looking forward to a very, very entertaining match.”

AmaZulu finished second on the DStv Premiership log in 2020/21 – their highest placing in the PSL era and one which will see them play in the CAF Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.

Usuthu claimed 26 points from their 15 away matches last season, suffering just three defeats (against TS Galaxy, Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates).

“I think in football you have to play the best in the business whether it’s your first game or your last game or your middle game and be able to do well,” said AmaZulu head coach Benni McCarthy ahead of the match.

“You have to play all the tough ones and unfortunately for us it’s the team that won the league and we finished second.

“The task at hand is very tough but we don’t shy away from that. We just prepare ourselves the best possible way we can, and we hope that the players will be up for the fight,” he added.

In head-to-head stats, Sundowns and AmaZulu have met in 61 league matches since 1985.

The Brazilians have claimed 39 wins compared to eight for Usuthu, while 14 matches have been drawn.

The Tshwane side has won 18 of their 30 home matches in the rivalry, suffering six defeats in the process.

The teams’ two league meetings last season saw Sundowns claim a thrilling 4-3 home win at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in November 2020, while the return game at Kings Park Stadium in April 2021 ended in a goalless draw.

PLAYERS TO WATCH – Mamelodi Sundowns

Peter Shalulile: The Namibia international was key to their success last season, scoring 15 goals in 25 league matches and seems to have carried that sort of form into the 2021/22 season, having found the back of the net in the club’s MTN8 win over Kaizer Chiefs last weekend.

Shalulile is not only a goalscorer, but sets the tone for how the Brazilians play. His high-energy pressing game and ability in the air also makes him a valuable asset in defensive situations.

Mothobi Mvala: Like Shalulile, Mvala also cut his teeth at Highlands Park before making the move to Chloorkop. Early signs suggest he will continue to play a more prominent role for the Brazilians this season alongside Rivaldo Coetzee in midfield.

Mvala is equally comfortable in defence and might not start every game, but his versatility makes him – much like Shalulile – a valuable asset to a team that compete on a lot of fronts.

PLAYERS TO WATCH – AmaZulu

Veli Mothwa: The AmaZulu shot-stopper has established himself as one of the best in his position in the country. Following a terrific first season at Usuthu he went on to captain Bafana Bafana to Cosafa Cup glory in Port Elizabeth and is now not only the first choice at club level, but a regular for the South African national team.

Against an attacking Sundowns team, he will have. role to play and could be the difference on the day.

Luvuyo Memela: Much like Sundowns, AmaZulu also have quality in depth and this will come in handy in their pursuit of continental glory. With the likes of Memela, Augustine Mulenga and Siyethemba Sithebe at their disposal Usuthu are not short of creativity.

Memela scored eight goals and assisted a further four in the league last season and will be aiming to build on those numbers in the current campaign.

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