South African Premier Division preview - Will Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates unseat Mamelodi Sundowns?

Only one month and three days after Kaizer Chiefs lost emphatically to Al Ahly in the 2021 CAF Champions League final, the new South African Premier Division season is upon us, with the nation's finest set to renew hostilities this weekend.

The Amakhosi will be one of several pretenders to Mamelodi Sundowns' crown, but will they, rivals Orlando Pirates, or indeed any of the chasing pack, be able to end the Brazilians' four-year stranglehold on the title?

Mamelodi Sundowns: Title Favourites

Only twice since 2013 -- in 2015 and 2017 -- have Mamelodi Sundowns failed to get their hands on South Africa's top football prize, and yet there were concerns ahead of the previous campaign that their dominance might have ended.

The uncertainty was due to the departure of long-standing and ultra-successful coach Pitso Mosimane to Al Ahly in mid-2020, and the installation of an unorthodox coaching trio of Manqoba Mngqiti, Rhulani Mokwena and Steve Komphela.

There were concerns that too many cooks could spoil the broth, and that the three co-managers -- each with their own approach, vision and ego -- might fail to coexist as hoped.

Ultimately, the fears were ill-founded.

Sundowns lost just one match all season as they romped to the title with 67 points, 13 clear of their nearest rivals AmaZulu and a whopping 17 ahead of the Pirates in third.

It was their highest points tally in a single PSL season since Mosimane's masterpiece in 2015-16, their only disappointment being their CAF Champions League quarterfinal exit at the hands of their legendary ex-head coach and Al Ahly.

The truth is that Sundowns were entirely in control of last season's title race, and they are overwhelming favourites once again.

They have the winning mentality and continuity in style and structure from the days of Mosimane, and boast strength in depth that is the envy of their rivals.

They've added striker Thabiso Kutumela from Maritzburg United -- on the back of scoring 12 goals last season -- and he can help the Brazilians improve on their (already impressive) return of 49 goals in 30 games last term.

Soweto Giants: Kazer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates

The collective failure of Soweto heavyweights Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates weighs ever heavier on their shoulders, as the duo continue to fail to live up to their billing and reputation.

The Chiefs' trophy drought has now stretched to 26 attempts, with the heavyweights having not won a single competitive honour since clinching the league title in 2015.

Pirates' record is slightly better -- they at least had MTN 8 glory to shout about last year -- but their decade-long wait for the PSL crown would have been unfathomable after they clinched back-to-back honours in 2011 and 2012.

However, the Pirates' hopes of starting this season strongly were thrown into disarray by the departure of German coach Josef Zinnbauer, who resigned from his post on Monday, only five days before the Buccaneers' league opener against Stellenbosch FC.

Defeat by Moroka Swallows in the MTN 8 at the weekend was the final straw for a coach who had promised brighter times when he clinched that same trophy in 2020 but found himself under pressure after missing out on CAF Champions League qualification.

He failed to stem Orlando's habit of leaking cheap goals, while an inflexible tactical approach and a maddening profligacy in front of goal also cost him goodwill with supporters.

Mandla Ncikazi, who joined the coaching staff after excelling as Golden Arrows boss last term, appears well placed to take the reins, although there's no doubt that Pirates are in disarray with the season upon us already.

For Chiefs, there are reasons for both pessimism and optimism.

Last season's eighth-placed finish was only marginally better than their ninth-placed return in 2019, and ultimately cost experienced Gavin Hunt his job.

He failed to adapt effectively in light of the Amakhosi's transfer ban, while his ageing team appeared to suffer a hangover from losing the title on the last day of the 2019-20 season despite enjoying a substantial lead over Sundowns heading into the final stretch.

Hunt has been replaced by former South Africa national team coach Stuart Baxter -- responsible for the club's halcyon era of 2012-15 -- and he's been charged with bringing the good times back to Naturena.

The offseason signings of Cole Alexander and Keagan Dolly -- the latter returning home after four years with Montpellier in France -- have prompted optimism, although Baxter must now establish a starting XI and Plan A from a seriously stocked roster of players.

The much-needed fresh blood -- Chiefs have also signed the likes of Njabulo Ngcobo, Sifiso Hlanti and Phathutshedzo Nange -- will take time to adapt to the rigours and demands of playing for the biggest club in the land, although Baxter will relish the prospect of integrating the new players.

One fascinating subplot is the reunion of the fabled 'CBD' strikeforce, with Leonardo Castro, Khama Billiat and Dolly reunited five years after they fired Sundowns to the African title. If they can conjure up the old magic, then Chiefs should kick on from their unlikely run to the Champions League final last term.

Surprise Contenders?

Bafana Bafana great Benni McCarthy was named PSL Coach of the Year -- ending Mosimane's three-year streak -- for his sterling season with AmaZulu.

South Africa's all-time top scorer lost his way at Cape Town City previously, and he was a risky choice to reinvigorate the fallen giants, but he set about maximising owner Sandile Zungu's hefty investment in the club after replacing Ayanda Dlamini in December.

He's gone on to establish himself among Africa's brightest young managers, and was even talked about as a potential national team coach after securing unlikely CAF Champions League qualification for Usuthu.

Now, however, he's facing that tricky second season -- something that proved a problem in Cape Town -- and he'll have to juggle continental competition with increased expectations domestically.

It will be fascinating to see how Moroka Swallows fare this season, particularly after they defeated Orlando Pirates in the MTN 8 quarterfinals last weekend.

Losing just two league games last term -- just one more than the champions -- was a remarkable return for the newly promoted side, and Brandon Trutor's Dube Birds will compete for the top four if they can add a cutting edge to their obduracy.

Golden Arrows, who finished fourth last term, have subsequently lost their manager and influential Zimbabwe defender Divine Lunga, and a drop-off looks likely.

Player of the Year contenders

Peter Shalulile won the award last year, when he was only one goal off claiming the Golden Boot as well in a sensational year in front of goal for Mamelodi Sundowns.

Firmly settled with Downs, and with creative players around him, the ex-Highlands Park man should continue to be the division's outstanding goal threat.

Brazilians new boy and Pirates reject Kutumela is in his prime at 28, and will be desperate to make an impression after being given a second chance at one of the big three.

He'll rely heavily on the outstanding Themba Zwane -- still going strong at 32 -- to supply the chances and fire Sundowns to yet more silverware.

The CBD strikeforce will attract most of the attention at Kaizer Chiefs, but frontman Samir Nurkovic has a point to prove after scoring just three goals last season -- a major drop-off from his maiden season at the club.

Doubtless, fitness problems played a part in his struggles last season, but Nurkovic can be a big threat again for the Chiefs if he remains at the club; Al Ahly have been linked to his signature.

Pirates' Gabadinho Mhango is another player looking to bounce back after a season troubled with injury to offer the all-round threat he did during the 2019-20 campaign, while Ben Motshwari doesn't always get the credit he deserves for his immense work in the middle of the park.

Among the rest of the division, reigning Golden Boot winner Bradley Grobler (SuperSport United) and fellow veteran Ruzaigh Gamildien (Swallows) won't be challenging for the title, but expect them to settle their fair share of big matches.

Potential Breakout Stars

Bongokuhle Hlongwane is the man Maritzburg United will turn to as they look to replace 12-goal Kutumela, and the 21-year-old must show he has the quality to replace the departed goal threat.

Hlongwane was handed a maiden international call-up last term -- on the back of his excellent domestic form -- and he looks to have the profile that will be attracting the division's bigger teams in 12 months' time.

At Chiefs, there's great excitement about young defender Sabelo Radebe, who certainly looked the part against the Pirates in the Carling Black Label Cup.

Baxter has talked up the defender's technical ability and pace, while hinting that he could get more minutes this season; with the pressure hefty for the Glamour Boys, however, it remains to be seen how often he will be risked.

Grant Margeman has been made to bide his time at Sundowns, often watching from the sidelines as Themba Zwane has dazzled spectators and flummoxed defences alike.

Hailed as the heir to the great playmaker, Margeman is now already 23 himself, and this could prove to be the campaign in which he begins to get more opportunity, and takes more responsibility, for pulling Sundowns' strings.

Then there's Phakamani Mahlambi, heralded as the future of South African soccer when he signed for Al Ahly in 2017 but now back in the PSL with AmaZulu as he looks to rebuild his career at 23.

McCarthy will be desperate to help Mahlambi rediscover the form that once made him such an enticing prospect.