The Road To The Nedbank Cup Final
The stage is set as Maritzburg United and Free State Stars prepare for the Nedbank Cup final, and Soccer Laduma travels back down the road that has led the two teams to the Cape Town Stadium showpiece on May 19.
Starting with the Team of Choice, who was drawn as the home side for next month's Ke Yona finale, their adventure began with a trip to the Dobsonville Stadium to take on Swallows FC. Andrea Fileccia gave United a flying start with a goal in the second minute, but Tshepo Mashego's 34th-minute equaliser eventually earned the Birds a 1-1 draw and extra-time. However, Maritzburg's class eventually shone through as Fileccia grabbed his brace with 97 minutes gone before Mxolisi Kunene rounded off the win eight minutes from the end.
On to the last 16 they went and again the KZN side made life difficult for themselves, this time against Royal Eagles as United captain Bevan Fransman was sent off on 45 minutes. However, Deolin Mekoa still put Maritzburg ahead before the break while Siyanda Xulu scored in the final minute to render Mame Niang's temporary equaliser as only a consolation.
The quarter-finals would then see the Team of Choice face PSL opposition for the first time in this season's competition in Bloemfontein Celtic, and signalled their intent as Lebohang Maboe opened the scoring after just one minute of football. However, Fileccia was the hero for United as he netted an 80th-minute winner after Jacky Motshegwa had drawn Phunya Sele Sele level.
Maritzburg's hard work so far was to be rewarded with a home semi-final against this season's big dogs in Mamelodi Sundowns, who lead the Absa Premiership by six points and who were the clear favourites heading into the tie.
Fadlu Davids' men had other ideas though and not even Gaston Sirino's second-minute opener for the Brazilians could get the better of them as they rallied before half-time through Lebohang Maboe. Sirino then went from hero to villain as he was sent off for a second bookable offence, and Maritzburg took full advantage of the numbers as Mxolisi Kunene and Fortune Makaringe got their names on the scoresheet in the final minutes to book the Team of Choice their first-ever Nedbank Cup final appearance.
Free State Stars:
For Ea Lla Koto, their road to the 2018 Nedbank Cup final proved a bumpy start as they hosted Super Eagles at Goble Park, where Rooi Mahamutsa struck at the death to force extra-time after Bongani Mbuli had given the NFD outfit the lead. Mohammed Anas then came through for Stars in the 95th minute as the PSL side scraped through.
Improvements were expected and indeed needed in the last-16, where top-flight rivals Chippa United made the trip to the Free State, although it seemed like extra-time would again be needed as the sides were level at 1-1 with moments remaining. However, Bengali Keita produced the goods for the hosts as he bagged an 88th-minute winner to keep the train rolling.
The quarter-finals saw Stars go on the road for the first time in this year's tournament as they visited the Athlone Stadium to take on Ubuntu Cape Town. This time it was more than 120 minutes of football needed to separate the sides as they finished 1-1 to eventually go to penalties, where Ea Lla Koto's experience came through as they progressed 4-2 in the shoot-out.
Like Maritzburg, the semi-finals would pit Free State Stars against one of South Africa's most decorated clubs, and Nedbank Cup record title holders, Kaizer Chiefs. However, the Moses Mabhida Stadium encounter will forever be remembered not for the football, which saw a brace from Harris Tchilimbou earn Stars a 2-0 win, but for the violent scenes following the full-time whistle, where rioting and brutality plagued the tie and soiled the image of South African football.
Stars, though, will be hoping they can shake off the negativity surrounding the tie and focus on the job at hand when they face off against Maritzburg United for title glory in the Mother City at the end of the season.
The road to the Nedbank Cup Final:
Last 32: 3-1 vs Swallows FC (Dobsonville Stadium)
Last 16: 2-1 vs Royal Eagles (Princess Magogo Stadium)
QF: 2-1 vs Bloemfontein Celtic (Harry Gwala Stadium)
SF: 3-1 vs Mamelodi Sundowns (Harry Gwala Stadium)
Free State Stars:
Last 32: 2-1 vs Super Eagles (Goble Park)
Last 16: 2-1 vs Chippa United (Goble Park)
QF: 1-1 (4-2 on penalties) vs Ubuntu Cape Town (Athlone Stadium)
SF: 2-0 vs Kaizer Chiefs (Moses Mabhida Stadium)
Who do you think will walk away with the Nedbank Cup title?