Johannesburg - Orlando Pirates go into 2011 confident of mounting a serious challenge to leaders Mamelodi Sundowns and arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs for the Absa Premiership title.
Speaking after his side had drawn 0-0 against a gutsy 10-man Platinum Stars in the final round of fixtures of Wednesday night, Bucs coach Ruud Krol said Pirates would be among the serious contenders in the New Year.
Downs suffered a shock 3-2 home loss to AmaZulu on Wednesday, which has opened up the race. Chiefs are now second after beating struggling Mpumalanga Black Aces 1-0 in Witbank on 23 points - four behind Downs - while Bucs dropped to third spot on 22 points.
The former Dutch captain was, however, not pleased his side failed to capitalise after Stars were reduced to 10 men when Lebo Ramolesa was sent off in the 55th minute.
“It was a great pity we did not get the three points, but the reason is simple - we did not play intelligently and showed no patience by continuing to play the ball down the middle, while we also failed to create spaces and take advantage of the situation," said Krol.
“This was a great chance to move closer to Sundowns, but we are still in the hunt and anything is possible in the New Year.
"The fact Sundowns lost shows this league is very competitive and results cannot be taken for granted. For me the league is wide open.”
Stars coach Owen da Gama, backed Pirates to challenge strongly for the title.
Da Gama, a former Bucs coach said Sundowns with their spending power, are one of the favourites, but for him Pirates have a tremendous coach in Ruud Krol and he believes they have the quality to be championship contenders. He also agrees the race was an open one.
According to Krol the fact Sundowns have bought the best players around does not make them the best side.
Da Gama showed again what a good tactician he is by refusing to panic when Ramolesa was sent off for a second bookable offence by referee Jerome Damon in the 55th minute.
Stars, instead of closing up shop, took the game to Pirates. It took a stunning save from Pirates' Senzo Meyiwa to deny Thuso Phala a winner late in the game.
“I though we defended brilliantly,” said Da Gama afterwards.
The Stars coach, however, was not getting carried away despite guiding his side to their fifth successive unbeaten match. “I have got the defence right and that is a big plus, but I am not making any predictions about the top eight.
"All I want this season is to stabilise the squad and things are slowly taking shape, but there is a long way to go.”
Da Gama admitted Pirates controlled much of the game but added while playing with 10 men they worked hard for their point.
Meanwhile Da Gama is hoping to keep his central defender Mbulelo “OJ” Mabizela who is targeted by a number of clubs in the January transfer window.
The former Bafana Bafana captain was outstanding against his former club and has been linked to a number of clubs, including defending champions SuperSport United.
“OJ is playing his best soccer in years and I want to keep him, but that is a question for our management.
"They are talking to OJ and his agent and hopefully we can come to a new deal. I would hate to lose such a top quality and experienced defender,” said Da Gama.