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Clever Boys aim to outsmart South African title rivals

Johannesburg (AFP) – It took Bidvest Wits FC 96 years to become South African champions for the first time, and now they are on course to win a second title just two seasons later. 

The Johannesburg outfit lead Orlando Pirates by three points as the second half of the season begins this weekend, but have no African commitments unlike three title rivals.

South African clubs have consistently struggled to excel simultaneously in local and international competitions and this could give Wits a crucial edge.

Known as the Clever Boys, the club play in a university campus with the 5,000-seat ground bordered by a planetarium and the Johannesburg-Pretoria highway. 

AFP Sport highlights five issues in the richest national football league in Africa, with clubs contesting 30 million rand (about $2.1m/1.8m euros) in prize money.

Title race

After many predictable title chases, the scene is set for an exciting second half of the season with Wits, Pirates and defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns looking strongest.

Wits are built around a strong rearguard that includes national squad regulars in goalkeeper Darren Keet and defenders Thulani Hlatshwayo, Buhle Mkhwanazi and Sifiso Hlanti.

Pirates and Sundowns have to play six CAF Champions League group matches each by mid-March, including time-consuming trips to west and north Africa, and that could count against them.

Polokwane rise

The surprise side among the championship challengers is Polokwane City from the capital of the northern province, who lie fourth, seven points behind Wits.

They are a club without big-name players who attract modest crowds and usually battle against relegation. They finished 12th last season.

But a pre-season change of coaches, with Slovak Jozef Vukusic taking, over has dramatically improved a team built around 36-year-old playmaker Jabu  Maluleke.

Maritzburg fall

Maritzburg United were the revelations of last season, finishing fourth in the Premiership and reaching the South African FA Cup final under 37-year-old coach Fadlu Davids.

But halfway through this season Untied are bottom of the table with only one victory, five goals and 11 points from 14 matches and Davids has been sacked.

Turkish-born replacement Muhsin Ertugral knows all about relegation battles having failed to save Ajax Cape Town from the drop last season.

Coaching shake-up

Ertugral was part of a coaching shake-up during the mid-season break affecting Maritzburg, seventh-place Bloemfontein Celtic and bottom-half Golden Arrows.  

Arrows fired Clinton Larsen after only three wins in 15 matches and hired former South Africa captain and defender Steve Komphela from Celtic.  

The loss of Komphela deepened the problems of Celtic, who have yet to find a replacement amid financial turmoil with the  owner admitting he cannot afford to bankroll the club. 

Goal drought

The glaring weakness in the Premiership is scoring. 

Last season, the joint winners of the Golden Boot managed just 11 goals each from a 30-round championship.    

This season, midfielder Mothobi Mvala, from mid-table Highlands Park, tops the goal charts with seven from 15 matches, using his height and physique to good effect in the air.

Another concern for national coach Stuart Baxter is that five of the top 10 scorers are foreign, coming from Zimbabwe (two), Argentina, Scotland and Zambia.

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