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Orlando Pirates coach Jose Riveiro. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Orlando Pirates coach Jose Riveiro. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

As the PSL teams put up their feet and enjoy a break at the end of the 27th season of the Premiership, the chasing pack will be hard at work devising plans to derail the Mamelodi Sundowns juggernaut that has taken ownership of the league title for the past six seasons.    

Alarmingly, since Kaizer Chiefs stumbled at the final hurdle by drawing against lowly Baroka, allowing Sundowns to steal the title from under their noses, the gap between the champions and the challengers widened considerably over the next three seasons. 

After Pitso Mosimane’s side won by a two-point margin in 2020, replicating the points difference of the previous season when they pipped Orlando Pirates to the title, the gap increased to 13 in 2021 before turning into a veritable chasm of 16 over the last two campaigns. 

With Pirates having finished the past season strongly, there is every hope the Buccaneers have laid the foundations to launch a strong challenge to Masandawana’s six-year dominance of the PSL title. The 54 points they collected is their best return since 2019 when Micho Sredojevic’s side collected 58 to finish just two points behind Sundowns. It is also a huge jump from last season’s sixth-place finish when they collected 10 points less.

Jose Riveiro’s team capped off a fine second half of the season by lifting the Nedbank Cup to stretch their unbeaten run to 13 games in all competitions. In winning SA’s version of the FA Cup, Pirates completed a cup double, adding to the MTN8 they won in November when they beat AmaZulu in the final. 

It is worth remembering that they beat Sundowns 3-0 in the second leg of the MTN8 semifinal in October to end a six-game winless run against the perennial champions. By clinching the double, Pirates will also draw encouragement from ending the season with more silverware than the Brazilians.

Let’s hasten to add though that Rhulani Mokwena’s side won the trophy that really mattered, and at a canter too, losing only twice — to TS Galaxy and SuperSport United — during the course of the 30-game campaign.

Still, Riveiro has settled in well in his first sojourn in African football and by the end of the season managed to engineer promising green shoots that could contribute to an even better campaign in 2023-24. 

The Spaniard, whose coaching credentials were unfairly questioned by some sections of the media and the club’s fan base when he was appointed last July, has silenced his detractors and will look to kick on in the new season. 

Most encouragingly for the Ghost, as Pirates’ fans are affectionately known, their team managed to end a run of five straight losses against arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs with victory in the semifinals of the Nedbank Cup.

“The learning process was difficult. Things were not easy from the start, so I’m looking forward to the rest. But it’s not going to be too long. It’s going to be long for the players because they deserve it. But for us as technical staff, we have to start working for the next season,” the Pirates coach said after his side’s 2-1 victory over Sekhukhune United in the Nedbank Cup final. 

Riveiro has shown his ambitious side by underlining the value of winning trophies in looking forward to next season’s challenge. 

“I think that’s going to be a huge value for the players for the future. Next season we are going to try again. Everyone will start with zero points and at nil-nil in every competition.” 

The 47-year-old, who holds a Uefa Pro coaching licence, the highest coaching qualification in the game, seems to have nurtured a sense of belief and togetherness in his squad that augurs well for the battles that lie ahead. A 13-game unbeaten run is a huge achievement and should fill Pirates’ fans with optimism that their team may well be the leading challengers to Sundowns next season.

In qualifying for next season’s Champions League, the Buccaneers will face a test of their squad’s depth and character as travel in Africa brings its own challenges. On the other hand, exposing the players to a higher level of competition and the vagaries of traversing the continent could have a useful impact in building the team’s character.

The inevitable new arrivals at the club will be watched with keen interest as Pirates seek to strengthen their squad. No doubt Sundowns and other top teams, such as Chiefs and SuperSport United, will also bolster their ranks in the off-season as they prepare to renew their battle for supremacy when the new season starts in early August. 

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