Durban - AmaZulu’s first ever Durban derby against Premiership newcomers Royal AM at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday afternoon promises to be filled with entertainment off the field.
Two of the PSL’s most animated figures in Usuthu coach Benni McCarthy and Royal AM owner Shauwn Mkhize (MaMkhize) will be on the sidelines cheering on their teams.
KwaZulu-Natal derbies have lacked sparkle in recent years, especially with the clubs lacking the same level of fan base as their Gauteng counterparts. However, with Royal AM and AmaZulu having lofty ambitions, this clash promises to be one of the most lively Durban derbies in several years.
While Usuthu should be favourites on paper, that will not be the case in reality. Royal AM have been one of the league’s surprise packages this season, helped by the players and coaching staff that they inherited from the now defunct Bloemfontein Celtic whose Premiership status they purchased.
Royal AM enter the clash in third place on the log while AmaZulu have been largely underwhelming this season, given that they are eighth with just three wins from 13 games so far.
John Maduka’s team have lost one out of their last 10 league fixtures (against Sekhukhune), winning five and drawing four in that period. As the halfway point of the season approaches, and given the experienced core of players in the Royal AM squad, the newbies can back themselves to potentially challenge for continental football next season if they execute their tactical plans well.
Based on their current level of performances, it looks unlikely that Usuthu will be able to emulate their heroics from last season when they finished an all-time high second place. However, a run of good form could potentially see them achieving chairman Sandile Zungu’s vision of a top four finish.
AmaZulu legend George Dearnaley believes that the team’s success from last season may have actually laid the foundation for teams to better prepare to play against them.
“They (AmaZulu) had more open games last season and picked up a lot of points. This season teams are sitting back and making it harder for them. They haven’t quite found their fire power and are yet to break down opposition defences although they have dominated games without winning. They have only scored two goals twice this season and the only time they scored three was in the Champions League against Big Bullets,” said Dearnaley.
However, given the close-knit nature of this season, Dearnaley believes that there is still a lot of time left for Usuthu to turn their season around, starting with the game against Royal AM.
“They are a minimum top six team and if the new signings start to perform at their best and the team starts to find ways to score goals, they can finish in the top four but they need to get moving. They are just four points off third position so they are still in with a great chance,” he said.
Dearnaley admitted that he has been left frustrated with the team’s performances in the league.
“There have been games that they have dominated but dropped two points with a draw. If they could have turned half of their draws into wins, that would be eight points and they would be second on the log which is a fair reflection of performance but not of results,” he said.
For the team to improve their performances, Dearnaley believes that more players need to support standout goalkeeper Veli Mothwa as well as the likes of Tapelo Xoki, Tercious Malepe and Augustine Mulenga.
“Nobody has really stood out and that is probably their biggest problem. There are a lot of good players who have come to AmaZulu from other clubs but they look like they are strangers to each other. It’s time for the experienced guys to take leadership, stand up and start putting in man of the match performances,” he said.
The one competition where AmaZulu have exceeded expectations this season is in the CAF Champions League. Usuthu overcame the likes of Nyasa Big Bullets and African giants TP Mazembe in the preliminary knockout stages to reach the group stage of Africa’s premier club competition.
“When I saw they had to play TP Mazembe after knocking out Big Bullets, I did think that would be the end of the African adventure. This is new territory for the club (excuse the pun) and travelling in Africa will be something very new to the players. With Benni’s international experience, the players have someone they can learn from,” said McCarthy.