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South AfricaSouth Africa
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 By Nick Said

Plenty to play for on final day of Premier Soccer League

Bidvest Wits win the 2016/17 Absa Premiership title on 17 May 2017
Bidvest Wits win the 2016/17 Absa Premiership title on 17 May 2017
The South African league title has already gone to Bidvest Wits, but the race for the potentially lucrative top eight spots, the battle to avoid the drop, and the question of who will grab the final African Champions League qualification spot, make for an intriguing final round of matches in the Absa Premiership on Saturday.

It is a sign of the gripping 2016/17 season in South Africa that 12 of the 16 top flight sides are still fighting for position going into the final day. Fans will need to have their calculators at the ready though, as the permutations for a top half finish and the relegation battle are complex.

Only the fixture between Kaizer Chiefs and champions Wits is somewhat meaningless in terms of the table, but even that will have an edge.

Chiefs are winless in their last six matches and, should that be stretched to seven, question marks over the players and coach Steve Komphela will multiply. It could make for an uncomfortable few months for the latter.

But for Chiefs fans, victory over the league winners will send them into the holidays with a smile, and ease the pressure a little on Komphela, even though they have now gone through two seasons in a row without silverware, a rarity in the club's trophy-laden 47-year history.

Failure to get at least a point will also see them finish fifth, the same as last season, and that can hardly be viewed as progress in the last 12 months.

Above them, Mamelodi Sundowns and Cape Town City battle for second place and qualification for the CAF Champions League in 2018.

Sundowns are the current holders of the competition and revived their fortunes in this season's tournament with an excellent 3-1 victory at AS Vita Club on Wednesday.

It was, in a way, a surprise win, given how poor they have been in recent weeks as their weary legs battle to carry them through a ridiculously difficult schedule in the closing months of the campaign.

They lead upstarts City by a single point and travel to second-bottom Highlands Park, who are battling for survival. The Cape Town club are away at Polokwane City, who have already ensured a top eight place and are one of those clubs with nothing riding on the final day of the campaign.

Cape Town City, formed in 2016, have already secured a place in next year's African Confederation Cup, but for them to win a spot in the Champions League will be beyond their wildest expectations this maiden season.

For holders Sundowns, missing out would be a disaster.

Meanwhile, finishing in the top eight in South Africa can bring riches in the form of the MTN8 competition, where the winner takes home R8 million for essentially only needing to win two matches, and perhaps gain a couple of score draws in the two-legged semifinals.

Given that the league champions take home R10 million for the hard slog of claiming the trophy over nine months and 30 matches, the MTN8 provides a huge carrot and a 'get rich quick' scheme.

Wits, Sundowns, Cape Town City, SuperSport United, Kaizer Chiefs, and Polokwane City have already secured their berths, but there are five teams chasing the final two places.

Realistically, seventh-placed Maritzburg United (37 points) need a point at home to Bloemfontein Celtic to ensure their place in the competition for just the second time in their history. Ajax Cape Town (36), currently in eighth position, host bottom side Baroka FC, and given their impressive recent form that has seen them lose just one of their last nine home games, they will be heavy favourites.

Lamontville Golden Arrows (35) have not qualified for the MTN8 since they lifted the trophy in 2009 with a thumping 6-0 win over Ajax in the final, still the largest margin of victory in a South African cup decider.

Arrows host bogey side Orlando Pirates (33) in Durban, with the latter needing a victory and for other results to go their way if they are to avoid missing out on the MTN8 competition for the first time since 1987. They also need to make up a five-goal swing on goal-difference over Ajax.

Platinum Stars (34) are the other side still in contention and they travel to inconsistent SuperSport United, who cannot improve on their current fourth place.

The bottom five sides are all still in serious trouble for either automatic relegation, or being subjected to the relegation play-offs, which have not been kind to top flight teams in the past.

The side that finishes 15th will enter the play-offs against form National First Division sides Black Leopards and Stellenbosch FC, and both of those will provide a stern test.

Baroka (25 points, -18 goal-difference) are currently bottom and even a win at Ajax may not be enough to save them if other results don't go their way.

Highlands Park (26, -18) also may find that a draw at home to Sundowns, which would be considered a fantastic result, may not be enough to avoid the automatic drop.

The two teams directly above them, Free State Stars (27, -11) and Chippa United (27, -5), are in action against one another in Bethlehem, where the latter will hope for a miracle given the strong home form of Stars and Chippa's abysmal record on the road. A point would be gold to them.

Bloemfontein Celtic (28, -12) will know that a draw at Maritzburg will likely be enough given their goal difference. Their season has been a remarkable one. They have the third best defensive record in the league, behind only Wits and Sundowns, yet find themselves in the relegation mix.

That is because they have only managed to score 15 goals in 29 games, an abysmal return from their wasteful strikers.


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