Tables turn on Chiefs in edgy finale
The Premier Soccer League lead could be hauled in if Kaizer Chiefs lose to Orlando Pirates in the Soweto derby.
Just one negative result, and suddenly the emphasis of Saturday's derby shifts dramatically. It should have been about Orlando Pirates' ability to keep alive their faint title hopes as they battle through a congested programme, nearing exhaustion, stumbling towards the finish.
Instead, the focus now turns starkly to Kaizer Chiefs, and the growing possibility their runaway lead in the league is going to be hauled in and a dramatic finish set up for the championship chase.
It seems almost incredible, given that less than a fortnight ago Chiefs looked as if they were cruising to a second successive title with a nine-point lead over the pack.
Their midweek setback against Platinum Stars suddenly piles pressure firmly on to a club that was coasting along, seemingly destined to leave the rest to battle over the scraps.
Chiefs are now in a tenuous position as that runaway lead has dissipated overnight, and they will go into the game at Soccer City acutely aware that another loss will blow the Premier Soccer League battle wide open.
Chiefs had not lost a league game in 11 outings before the 2-0 defeat at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace on Wednesday, but Platinum Stars have become a bogey team for many.
Chiefs play again three days later, while their two closest challengers, Mamelodi Sundowns and Wits, both have a seven-day hiatus between games. At this stage of the energy-sapping season, that is a massive boon.
Straight after Saturday's derby (kick-off is at 3.30pm), both Sundowns and Wits host relegation-threatened opponents in night matches they are expected to win.
Sundowns play Polokwane City, who have garnered but a single point on the road all season long (10 away games played), and Wits take on Free State Stars, with eight defeats from their 11 outings.
It means, therefore, that if Chiefs are beaten in the derby and Sundowns and Wits win just a few hours later – the standings will reflect a scant three-point lead for Chiefs, with Wits having a game in hand. That would throw the proverbial cat among the pigeons.
It is therefore, bragging rights and other rivalries aside, essential for Chiefs to return to their winning ways if they are to keep up a psychological buffer.
But they have not beaten Pirates in the past six derbies, cup ties included.
The intrigue created by the league race has ensured a sell-out crowd. The house-full signs went up on Tuesday already, and the derbies only ever sell out if at last one of the two teams are genuine title contenders. Pirates sit fourth in the race, mathematically still entitled to believe they could turn out to be champions.
It seems almost bizarre that just more than 50 000 went to watch Brazil last week, but close on double that turn up for the derby.
It does emphasise the unique position this meeting of two Soweto clubs on the South African sporting calendar holds, arguably being the fixture of the year.
Adding to the spice this time round is the return of Vladimir Vermezovic, whose debut as Pirates coach started with a win on Wednesday night away at Moroka Swallows, albeit somewhat luckily.
Chiefs fired the Serbian after almost three full seasons at the helm, during which time he had success in the knockout trophies, but never got Chiefs past third place in the league. One year on, and they were champions under his successor, Stuart Baxter.
Vermezovic seemed almost contrite on Wednesday, trying hard to project a calmer, gentler image and talking about being a little less arrogant and taciturn as he begins a second spell in South African soccer.
It will be interesting to see what sort of reception he gets from Chiefs' fans who will make up the majority of tomorrow's audience. It is not as though it has been a major betrayal on his part to cross the divide, and most Chiefs' fans, one suspects, rather enjoy the fact Pirates have picked up their cast-off.
AmaKhosi play without injured goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, another talking point in the brief build-up to the game. Just how influential the assurance the Bafana Bafana skipper usually brings to the Chiefs' camp could be made abundantly clear.
His replacement, Reyaad Pieterse, is a real prospect, but massively inexperienced. Pirates would be well advised to test him out thoroughly as quickly as they can.