Sundowns went into their clash on Tuesday night, looking to continue their recent resurgence. Masandawana were brimming with confidence following successive Tshwane Derby victories, and were on a three-match winning streak.
However, the Tshwane giants welcomed Ajax to Tshwane. A side that had the upper hand previously, as they ran out 2-0 winners against the defending PSL champions, back in November. This meant that revenge was on the cards for the Brazilians.
Also on offer for Sundowns, was an opportunity to narrow the gap between themselves and the chasing pack. Sundowns’ recent form has seen them back amongst the chasing pack and Pitso Mosimane’s troops went into the clash as clear favourites.
On the other hand, Ajax have not had the best of fortunes of late. Stanley Menzo’s side had only a solitary victory to their name in 2017. In the build-up to the clash, Ajax coach Menzo stated that his side would need to be mentally strong and would try to neutralise the Sundowns’ attack, making for a tight encounter.
Ahead of kick-off, Sundowns’ coach Mosimane lamented the state of the Loftus field. But the coach made his intentions known, as for the third game running, he selected an unchanged starting XI.
Meanwhile for Ajax, coach Menzo made three changes to the side that earned a valuable draw against Golden Arrows, in their last outing. Most notably, Mark Mayambela was on the bench for the Cape Town-based outfit.
The away side began the match brightly as they looked to grab the early ascendency. Menzo’s men were playing a high pressing game which had the Sundowns’ defence looking nervy, but despite the intricate build-up play by Ajax, they were let down by their final ball.
The first half was a tightly contested affair with chances few and far between. Sundowns had clearly done their homework on the Ajax defence as they constantly opted for the diagonal ball, but to Ajax’s credit, the defensive paring of Rivaldo Coetzee and Mosa Lebusa marshalled the Sundowns attack.
The sparse crowd at the Loftus Stadium had to wait 15 minutes to see the game’s first shot on goal. Percy Tau took charge of a free kick on their edge of the area but the 22-year-olds left footed effort went over Brandon Peterson's goal.
With just over 20 minutes on the clock, Khama Billiat had a glorious chance to open the scoring. The talismanic forward found himself unmarked in the box, but his side footed effort went well wide of the Ajax goal.
Sundowns began to find their stride and were causing the Ajax defence all sorts of headaches, particularly on the left-hand side of the field. On the half hour mark, Peterson was forced into an outstanding save, after a mistake by the Ajax defence. Tau capitalised on a loose ball, following a poor touch by Roscoe Pietersen, but the youngster could do little as he watched the keeper superbly dive to his right, to deny the opening goal.
The match was opening up and Ajax had a chance of their own. But the Sundowns’ keeper Denis Onyango was on hand as he denied Thabo Mosadi from point blanc range. With five minutes, left until half time, the crowd were growing frustrated with Tau. The Bafana Bafana forward was guilty on several occasions for being over-elaborate on the ball, putting his decision making into question.
Despite Sundowns’ dominance, they were vulnerable to the counter attack and Ajax had one final chance of the half, through Mosadi. But the 26-year-old’s tame effort was comfortably gathered by Onyango, as both teams went into the interval deadlocked.
With the resumption of the second half, coach Mosimane was looking for a better response. The coach threw on Anthony Laffor, in place of Mzikayise Mashaba as he demanded a greater attacking impetus.
Sundowns were looking to assert themselves early in the half and almost grabbed the lead in the 50th minute. Midfield general Hlompho Kekana, rattled the woodwork with an absolute scorcher of an effort, from 45 yards out.
Sundowns were dominating possession but struggled to break through the resolute Ajax defence. The match went into a dry spell yet again, as Ajax continued to employ the counter attack. It was becoming a physical battle in the middle of the park as the Ajax youngsters were not being overawed by their more illustrious opponents.
However, in the 68th minute the deadlock was finally broken. Tau redeemed himself as he exquisitely dinked his effort over an onrushing Peterson. Minutes later, Sundowns should have wrapped up the clash, but Billiat’s shot went narrowly wide of the Ajax goal, from close range.
Nonetheless, Sundowns found their second through Zwane. The 27-year-old finished off a brilliant team move, in the 74th minute. The African Champions were turning on the style as they dictated the play for the remainder of the clash.
In stoppage time Billiat came close to getting his name on the scoresheet but the 26-year-old’s shot went just wide. Tau had one final chance at the death but his shot was well saved by Peterson, as Sundowns claimed a valuable three points.