League action remained sparse around the continent because of the ongoing CAF African Nations Championship in Sudan and the second-leg matches in the first round of both the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup. But of the major powers, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa continued their programmes, while in Malawi the title race reached a crucial juncture.
South Africa: Six in a row
Orlando Pirates have opened up a four-point gap at the helm of the Premier League standings after overcoming Mamelodi Sundowns 2-1 in a top-of-the-table clash at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. It means they have won six successive matches, a feat the club has not achieved in the last decade. Ajax Cape Town went back second after a thrilling 4-3 win over Santos in the derby.
Big game: Pirates got an early break with a controversial 13th-minute penalty, converted by Katlego Mashego, but there was a quality about their second, powered home off the head of Thulasizwe Mbuyane after a sweeping move that carved open the Sundowns defence. ‘Downs pulled a goal back with 11 minutes left but Pirates were full value for the points, opening up a six-point gap over Sundowns. But their caretaker coach Ian Gorowa was quick to point out: “There are still ten games to go, and it’s still any team’s title for grabs.”
Headline-grabbers: Youthful striker Thulani Serero won his first cap for Bafana Bafana in midweek and then 48 hours later scored with a looping long-range winner that handed Ajax victory over Cape Town rivals Santos. Ajax led 3-1 at half-time despite an early sending off, but Santos fought back to 3-3 before Serero’s 85th-minute winner. “I’ve been moaning at him all season to shoot from distance,” beamed coach Foppe de Haan after another valuable three points.
Morocco: Two at the top
Raja Casablanca were supposed to be in CAF Champions League action at the weekend, but after the withdrawal of their Chadian opponents they resumed their league agenda with a 1-0 win over KAC Kenitra. They share top spot with OC Safi, who also squeaked home by a single goal at the weekend, beating bottom-placed Chabab Kasba Tadla. MAS Fez can join the pair on 31 points if they win away in midweek.
Big game: Champions Wydad Casablanca and military club FAR Rabat share the record for 12 league titles each in the National Botola but this season are off the pace in the championship chase. But there is still enough rivalry between seventh-placed WAC and 11th FAR to ensure intense focus on their fixtures, and this year it proved so again. The soldiers went ahead through Jawad Ouaddouch but the lead lasted just 13 minutes before Mustapha Allaoui equalised ten minutes before the interval.
Headline-grabbers: Yassine Salhi’s last-minute goal could prove a vital strike in the overall balance of the season, coming just as Raja looked to be on the verge of dropping two points at home to struggling KAC Kenitra. Salhi had come on a second-half substitute and hit the crossbar with an earlier effort before proving more serene in applying the decisive touch to his next chance at the stroke of full-time.
Nigeria: Championship credentials displayed
Dolphin FC and second-placed Sunshine Stars were both weekend winners, meaning Dolphin still have a four-point lead. But their credentials as prospective champions got a major boost with a rare away win over Zamfara United, which means the team from Port Harcourt now have seven wins in their last eight matches and all the hallmarks of a title-winning side, even if the Premier League is not yet at the halfway stage.
Big game: Newly promoted Bukola Babes have proven no infants in their debut campaign in the top flight and stretched their unbeaten run in the league to eight games after beating Lobi Stars 3-1. The home victory, with goals from Fade Adebayo, Azeez Shobowale and Abdulrahman Basiru, also moved them back to third place and sets up an intriguing encounter with Dolphin FC next weekend.
Headline-grabbers: With coach John Obuh and six players away with Nigeria’s U-20 side ahead of the start of the CAF U-20 Championship in March, it was Stanley Okoronkwo who stepped up to take responsibility and steer Sharks to a 2-1 win over Kaduna United. Okoronkwo scored either side of half-time in a rain-soaked encounter that saw Sharks glide up to fifth in the standings, seven points off the leaders
Malawi: Electric finish in the offing
ESCOM United, whose only previous championship success was in 2007, have moved to within a single win of the super league title after a 2-0 win over Big Bullets propelled then to the top. They are one point ahead of Silver Strikers, but the team run by the state utility company have two games to go and Strikers, who are the property of the country’s reserve bank, just one.
Big game: ESCOM have been playing catch up with the fixtures, but for the first time went ahead in the standings after two quick goals in the space of two minutes midway through the second half of their match against Bullets at the cavernous Kamuzu Stadium. Chimwemwe Chakhumbira and Noel Mkhandawire got the vital goals, leaving coach Charles Manda to tell reporters: “We are now in sniffing distance of the title.”
Headline-grabbers: CIVO United failed to get revenge for their recent penalty shootout loss in the cup final to Moyale Barracks, falling 2-0 to the same team and lengthening their chances of catching their rivals in third.
The lead of Black Africa in Namibia’s Premier League was cut back to just a single point after a surprise 2-1 loss to Mighty Gunners.
The new season in Guinea has started with 12 teams and a goalless draw between newly promoted side Sankaran and FC Sequence.
Tevragh Zeina won 3-1 away at KSAR to go thee points clear in Mauritania’s Premier Division with a game in hand on the chasing teams.