Bidvest Wits, having played 120 minutes and had a six-hour bus ride earlier this week, decided to freshen up their side for this one.
In attack, coach Gavin Hunt picked his most mobile front men as Gift Motupa led the line and Fagrie Lakay made his debut on the right flank.
In midfield, Granwald Scott played his second game in a week after eight months out injured.
Keegan Ritchie also started in the engine room as Wits went with three genuine central midfielders.
Mamelodi Sundowns were missing Thapelo Morena though injury, whilst Wayne Arendse was fit to play after sustaining a suspected concussion in midweek.
Mosa Lebusa started at left back for only the third time since joining the club.
In midfield, Lyle Lakay was preferred to Gaston Sirino for his extra defensive nous, whilst Phakamani Mahlambi played up front against his former club in preference to Emiliano Tade.
Downs Lead then Sit Back
Prior to this game, Pitso Mosimane said that whilst he would love to win, it was imperative not to lose.
He stressed that his side must not play on emotion, and from the start of this match, it looked like he had set his side up to draw.
After just six minutes though, his side were in front.
With Themba Zwane starting wider in this game than usual, Sifiso Hlanti was drawn higher to close him down from left back. This opened the channel for the pace of Mahlambi. That space led to the goal.
Mahlambi’s run pulled Johannes wide, and then when Sundowns lost the ball, Lebohang Maboe’s excellent counter-pressing (closing down as soon as the ball is lost) won the ball back.
He then played the low cross which Darren Keet could only parry into the path of Mahlambi for a tap-in.
Once in front, Sundowns were happy to sit off Wits and let their defenders have the ball.
Ritchie Key to Wits Response
The selection of Keegan Ritchie to bulk up the midfield was done with a couple of reasons in mind.
Firstly, he was in a position to close down both Hlompho Kekana and Themba Zwane on Sundowns’ right.
Secondly, he added excellent set-play deliveries for a Wits side who are experts from dead-ball situations.
He surprisingly also added some good runs into scoring areas from deep.
Early in the game, he headed straight at Denis Onyango when getting on the end of cross, then his delivery set up Motupa to head against the post from a freekick.
He threatened to score again later on when he ran off Anele Ngcongca onto Deon Hotto’s in-swinging cross.
Wits did eventually level after 30 minutes when Motupa robbed the usually flawless Ricardo Nascimento and chipped Onyango to make it 1-1.
His movement up front, along with Fagrie Lakay’s diagonal darts off the right flank, were causing Sundowns’ slow defence real issues.
Before the goal, Motupa had run in-behind after a sloppy Ngcongca giveaway, but Onyango had foiled him.
Then, not long after the equaliser, Lakay was pulled down by Arendse when through on goal and the latter was given his marching orders. Ritchie had played the incisive pass.
Against ten men, the pair linked as Motupa set Lakay up but the latter put his effort over the bar from inside the box.
The chance had come after Thulani Hlatshwayo had stayed up for several phases of play after a freekick and won a back-post mismatch against Lyle Lakay.
Sundowns had threatened at times themselves, particularly when Maboe sent Zwane away down the left, but he mishit his cross and it came to nothing.
Maboe had been Sundowns’ brightest spark while Hlatshwayo was struggling to contain him between the lines as he put in a tough tackle and took a yellow card to try and put him off.
Sundowns’ adjustment with ten men was simply to drop Lakay to left back, Lebusa into central defence and Maboe into a wide role – a 4-4-1 shape.
Wits had controlled Kekana very well in the opening period, and with Sundowns losing a strong aerial player, a second-half crossing and set-play onslaught was expected.
With a man less, Sundowns shut up shop at half-time and settled for a draw.
Their 4-4-1 shape was set up very deep, with Mahlambi alone in attack and even he dropped into his own half.
Wits made a change at the break, taking off Ritchie for Elias Pelembe. Against ten men, there was no need for Ritchie to bulk up the midfield.
The surprise was that Pelembe was used narrow to try to find space between the lines, instead of in his natural role on the right touchline. Fagrie Lakay moved up front.
With Sundowns so deep, Wits’ mobile front duo had no space to operate, and with Wits using Hotto and Pelembe narrow, the width came from fullbacks, Hlanti and Vuyo Mere.
However, the side had no real aerial targets in the box to feed on crosses, nor the space or guile in midfield to work opportunities.
The one half-chance Wits made from a cross came from Hlanti’s 52nd-minute delivery, but aerial ability was not Lakay’s strength and he headed well wide.
The introduction of Gabadinho Mhango for Hotto made no real difference.
Downs Reinforce Further
After a comfortable first 25 minutes of the second half, Mosimane reinforced his side further by replacing injured Mahlambi with an extra central defender in Rivaldo Coetzee.
This saw Lebusa revert to left-back, and Lakay very deep to defend against Mere.
Mahlambi had given little to the side in the second period, although he had run in-behind on one counter and been incorrectly flagged offside.
By the last 20 minutes, Sundowns were simply making long clearances and Maboe, now as a false nine, was not wasting energy in chasing these punts downfield.
It surprisingly took Wits until the 80th minute to finally introduce Simon Murray to give the side some sort of target in the box, but he had no impact with Sundowns limiting crosses and Wits not showing any desire to take risks on the ball.
This was a high-stakes game and it showed in the second half.
Sundowns were delighted to draw the game with ten men, but the surprise is that Wits were seemingly happy to do the same.
Despite Gavin Hunt’s view that his side created enough chances to win the match, that is not true of the second period.
Wits had some good first half openings with their movement in attack, but once Downs dropped deep, Lakay and Motupa offered little.
The fact that Hunt used his wingers narrow and did not introduce a target man for 35 second-half minutes, showed his reluctance to risk losing in order to try to win.
This was one of the least interesting tactical battles of the season and the second half failed to live up to expectations.
The key moment in the game was the red card as this further entrenched the away side’s desire for a draw.