Once considered the sluggards of the game, now they must have both defensive and attacking skills
While the strikers hog the derby-day headlines, the fullbacks are getting ready to write the fine print – and the history books. In a position once belittled as sheltered employment for plodders, modern wide defenders frequently boss the biggest contests. Arguably, they do more than any other tribe of players to determine the shape and dynamism of their teams. And Saturday's showdown at FNB Stadium promises to be a memorable war of the wide boys.
Orlando Pirates coach Roger de Sa said this week the role had evolved rapidly over the past decade. "The Brazilians started the whole trend, but now every top fullback gets forward often. For example, Dani Alves is all over the place; he spends more time in the opposition half than his own. Back in my time, the fullbacks were often the guys who couldn't run or couldn't pass. But that's all changed."
The Soweto derby has also changed a bit since March. In the last clash, which finished 3-2 after Pirates led 3-0 at the break, Benni McCarthy carved up Kaizer Chiefs with all the cool precision of a sushi master. But everything will be different on Saturday. Chiefs are reborn under Stuart Baxter, Bernard Parker is a new man and McCarthy may not start. And, last but not least, Amakhosi's impressive new defence bears no resemblance to a four-piece platter of sashimi.
On that crazy Saturday nine months ago, McCarthy had a brutal sous chef in winger Tlou Segolela, with a notable cameo from Daine Klate. But McCarthy and company were dicing a different quartet to the one they will confront on Saturday.
Back then, the Amakhosi rearguard comprised Dominic Isaacs and Lincoln Zvasiya, with a hapless Keegan Ritchie and Jimmy Tau manning the flanks. On Saturday night, Tefu Mashamaite and Eric Mathoho will pair up in the centre with Siboniso Gaxa and Tsepo Masilela flanking them. All four have looked the business – and Amakhosi have given up only nine goals to date in 16 outings, second only to Bucs' miserly total of eight.
Baxter's wild card is Tsepo Masilela. The injury-prone leftback is not quite at his match-fit peak yet, but as long as he is off his crutches he is a dangerous asset.
Masilela brings raw pace and a cavalier spirit to the left flank and his forays down the touchline might liberate Siphiwe Tshabalala to spend more time veering inside, where he can riff productively with Parker and find shooting positions. And Shabba gave us a spectacular reminder on Tuesday night of what damage he can do from range when he's on a plak.
On the other side of the pitch, Gaxa is on a plak of his own, delivering some of the jazziest football of his career at 28. He has been galloping upfield with relish and even poked a tjatjarag shot past Ajax Cape Town keeper Sander Westerveld in midweek – only his fifth league strike in a decade of professional service.
If both Amakhosi fullbacks can press and torment the Sea Robbers consistently, they could go a long way towards nullifying the threat of Bucs wingers Sifiso Myeni, Klate and Segolela, who are likely to switch flanks whenever the mood takes them.
As for the Sea Robbers, their fullback balance sheet has been boosted by the timely return of rightback Happy Jele, after a year's absence with an anterior cruciate knee injury. Thabo Matlaba has deputised well for Jele in recent weeks, away from his usual posting on the left, where new signing Patrick Phungwayo has been a steadily improving operator. So De Sa has a tricky call to make.
"Happy is in contention for a starting berth – we have a choice of three that are as good as any in the league," said De Sa. "Jele's size is a big asset; he's really good in the air and a threat at setpieces. He has a good engine, just like Matlaba and Phungwayo. He might not be as skilful as the other two, but he's a good athlete and gets up and down the pitch well – plus he's possibly a better defender."
The derby will reveal much to Bafana coach Gordon Igesund about his fullback permutations ahead of the African Nations Cup. He has invested four friendly starts in leftback Ricardo Nunes, but a compelling showing from Masilela could see him leapfrog the Portugal-born journeyman into contention for a starting berth against Cape Verde.
At the highest level, Nunes's shortage of pace is a risk factor that may outweigh his tidy crosses and cunning free kicks.
Like Nunes, Masilela is a stronger attacker than he is a defender, but he may win the race because of his superior international experience – plus a creditable campaign in Spain with Getafe last term.
As for the rightback berth, Igesund can take some comfort in the consistently solid form of both rivals for the slot – Gaxa and Genk stalwart Anele Ngcongca.
Former Bafana leftback legend David Nyathi endorses Masilela and Gaxa as a starting pair. "Gaxa is such a hard-working player. He is totally committed," he said this week. "Ngcongca is a good fullback, but I think Gaxa has played 49 games for Bafana and, where we're going now, we need that kind of experience."
Nyathi, who is now the U13 coach at Ajax Cape Town, added: "I've rated Masilela very highly from the beginning. Because he's injury-prone, there hasn't been much continuity in his contribution. But I really enjoy watching him play.
"That said, I do think all our fullbacks need to get better. Football is an all-rounders' game now – most players need to have a range of defensive and attacking skills. The higher intensity demands a higher level of versatility."
Intensity does not get much higher than it will at Soccer City.