The Team of Choice showed great character to come from a goal down to force the TK tie to extra time, thanks to Thabiso Kutumela’s penalty kick equaliser.
After 120 minutes the match went to a shoot-out and it was United who emerged 3-1 victors thanks to Bongani Mpandle’s heroics in making three saves.
Coach Eric’s joy at making the quarterfinals was however somewhat tempered his side’s failure to really stamp their authority during Friday’s game at a packed Harry Gwala Stadium.
“To be honest, did I expect more? Yes I did expect a lot more,” he said. “But am I happy about the result - of course - because that’s what the game is all about, and we move on to the next round.”
On the positive side, Maritzburg’s defence has been solid this season and it took some gutsy defending again to ensure victory in the end.
“We defended well, we worked really hard and I can’t fault the players for the effort for the last three games - and it’s that effort which has got us results in the last three games,” coach Eric said.
“Rushine [de Reuck] I thought was absolutely phenomenal, Siyanda [Xulu] playing the holding midfield role was fantastic. Nazeer Allie, even at his age, shows the quality he has.
“Wits are probably the best team in the league when it comes to putting the ball into the box, from open play, from set pieces. I thought we dealt with it extremely well, especially in the first half.
“We switched off though and got punished when they scored from a corner. But we responded well immediately got the equaliser. After that we defended well and there was not much of a threat from Wits.”
The conundrum the coach is facing is that when the team played some good football earlier this season, results did not follow. Lately it’s been more of a case of the opposite, although with three wins in a row, there is certainly reason for optimism.
“The fact that we’ve won three games where we haven’t played that well – I thought the first four games of the league we were exceptional, yet we didn’t get the results.
“Now three matches where we haven’t really played well….because I thought Wits were the better team, they created better opportunities, but we defended very well.
“But that’s not we’re all about, we are supposed to be a team that’s very good going forward, and we didn’t show that really tonight, apart from the first minute when we could have scored. After that, Wits dominated the first half.
“In the second half we made a tactical change and [that resulted] in Wits having less dominance in midfield. We slightly came back into the game, but still, we need to put our foot on the ball, to show that belief that we can play our brand of football, we didn’t really do that.”
There was however another good note at the end of the night in what turned to be a memorable occasion for Mpandle, who started in goal for the Team of Choice.
“We practiced penalties over the past three days,” the coach explained, “but it’s a different situation in a match. Bongani was the one that really benefited [from the practice] – he dealt with a lot of penalties over the past three days and I think that’s what got us the result.”