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May 19, 2012

McCarthy seals title for Pirates

Benni McCarthy, the former Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United striker, scored two goals in the last half hour on the final day of South Africa's Premier Soccer League (PSL) season to ensure Orlando Pirates won their second successive title.

Pirates were top of the table going into the final day, two points above their original Soweto rivals Moroka Swallows, and were crowned champions after they beat Golden Arrows 4-2 at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium. Swallows did all they could to stay in the hunt, beating Martizburg United 1-0 in Pietermaritzburg but it was not enough.

By the time Swallows' Lefa Tsutsulupa had netted in the 68th minute, from a free-kick, Pirates had already recovered from 2-1 behind and held a 3-2 lead. McCarthy scored the winner in the 61st minute, from a header, and sealed victory in injury time with a cracking free-kick of his own.

Pirates take home R10 million (US $1,333,333) in prize money and completed a second treble in two seasons. The team won two knockout tournaments, the Telkom Knockout and MTN8, in addition to their Premiership triumph. To add to their achievements, midfielder Daine Klate became the first South African player to win five consecutive titles, having played for SuperSport United when they were crowned champions in three successive years and row and featuring in both of Pirates' successes.

It has been an eventful season for the champions, who had a change of coach in the last third of the season. Brazilian manager Julio Leal was suspended in mid-March, following reports of dressing room unhappiness and a string of poor results, including being knocked out of the Nedbank Cup - South Africa's version of the FA Cup. He was replaced by Peruvian-born Augusto Palacios, who previously coached Bafana Bafana and was in charge of Pirates' football academy.

Palacios' reign started with a 3-0 defeat to Santos, who finished the season in second-last place, but his fortune improve dramatically after that. Pirates strung together a ten-match unbeaten streak to rise to the summit of the table. Palacios earned the praise of many of his players, who hope he will stay on in the role, but did not give an indication of whether he will consider a full-time position after winning the title. "Thank you to God," he said, "I don't know about next season, just thank you to God."

In particular, it was Palacios' handling of the temperamental McCarthy which was heralded as exemplary. McCarthy who is from Cape Town, signed a two-year deal with Pirates at the beginning of the season after being paid a fee by West Ham to cut his contract short. He has had a good run at Pirates, scoring 10 goals and ending as the league's fourth-highest scorer. "It's a proud moment," McCarthy said. "Next year I am coming back for more."

Despite his recent form, McCarthy did not earn a recall to the national squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Ethiopia and Botswana. Instead, veteran forward Siyabonga Nomvethe, who topped the goal-scoring list with 20 goals and plays for second placed Swallows was included.

Nomvethe was part of the stunning revival Swallows underwent, having ended last season close to relegation. They survived then but started this season dismally with only two points from their first nine games. It was up to Gordon Igesund, who has won four league titles with four different, to change things.

He took Swallows to the brink of becoming the fifth club he has coached to the title but said before the match that even if they didn't get over the line this time, he felt Swallows had a successful season. "It has still been an amazing season. The players have done a really good job," he said. "I've got players who are willing to listen and learn and have that all-important never-say-die spirit and approach."

SuperSport United, who won the league for three years in a row from 2007, finished in third. Big-spending Mamelodi Sundowns were fourth while Kaizer Chiefs, whose former coach Vladimir Vermezovic was named Partizan Belgrade's new manager, came in fifth. The much-maligned Jomo Cosmos were relegated while Santos will have to contest the play-off to stay in the top-flight. Next season will see the promotion of University of Pretoria to the PSL.

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