With a Premier Soccer League title at stake, tomorrow's "el kasieco" promises to be more jurassic than classic. No points will be awarded for artistic impression and the log leaders Kaizer Chiefs will be happy to reprise the two "route one" specials that saw off Chippa United in midweek.
But if any player boasts the creative skills to unlock the Orlando Pirates defence with a touch of style, it's Reneilwe "Yeye" Letsholonyane. The Amakhosi midfielder is the PSL's leading exponent of the art of the through-ball, as he showed yet again last weekend with a magnificent drilled pass from inside his own half to create Siphiwe Tshabalala's equaliser against Bidvest Wits.Shabba's scrappy finish was a bit less delicious, but the delivery into the gap was as sweet as a 13th cheque.
Similarly inviting gaps could catch Yeye's eye tomorrow, because the defending treble champions have been uncharacteristically ramshackle at the back in the absence of the mighty Siyabonga Sangweni. The Bafana star is just about fit again but Bucs coach Roger de Sa is understandably reluctant to throw him into the intensity of a Soweto derby before he has had a chance to pick up some match fitness.
Although the Ghost has prayed for Sangweni's return, the retreaded leftback Ayanda Gcaba has been pilloried for his iffy recent form in central defence.
Unfortunately for De Sa, he has nobody else to call on as a credible partner to Lucky Lekgwathi, with Happy Jele also a natural fullback. Nor does he have a compelling challenger to Collins Mbesuma at centre-forward, with Benni McCarthy only just returning to full training.
The spate of injuries
Not so long ago the Buccaneers squad seemed massive, but it's now looking nothing of the sort — and with arduous African away trips on the calendar, the spate of injuries and clear mental fatigue are not surprising. Chiefs stretched their lead at the top of the table to five points after Bucs were held by Bloemfontein Celtic on Wednesday. A victory tomorrow would put the defending champions back in striking range, with a game in hand, but the waves are getting choppy for the Sea Robbers.
Amakhosi coach Stuart Baxter has a much happier selection task this weekend, with two key players, second striker Bernard Parker and central midfielder Lucky Baloyi, both rested and refreshed for the derby fray.
But the Englishman couldn't bring himself to give Letsholonyane a break against Chippa. The points at stake in Athlone were just as precious as the ones up for grabs at FNB Stadium, and Letsholonyane is the indispensable fulcrum of the Phefeni Glamour Boys.
He doesn't just cook up the majority of Chiefs' attacks, he also defends with stamina and gusto, and will happily exchange unpleasantries with the Buccaneers' "militant midgets" — Oupa Manyisa and Andile Jali.
Ask Seydou Keita about the former Jomo Cosmos player's appetite for a scrap — the Mali legend was given an unexpectedly rough night by Letsholonyane during the Nations Cup quarterfinal in January. Keita won two important skirmishes; first he gave Yeye a spectacular wedgy, and then escaped his attentions to nod home the equaliser. But for the rest of the game Letsholonyane outshone the former Barcelona star.
It's a pity Yeye's quality wasn't exposed at this level a decade ago. Now 30 and too old for a European career, he is the closest the PSL has to a classic "regista" — a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of Andrea Pirlo, Xavi Hernandez, Luka Modric or Michael Carrick. He has the vision to survey the full width of the field, the judgment to know when an early pass is on and the technique to weight and place the ball accurately.
What sets the Sowetan apart from most of his PSL peers is his passing range: his precision from 30m out is almost as good as his precision from 10m out. If he does have a troubling flaw in his passing game, it's his over-eagerness to share the ball positively. Sometimes Yeye passes when he's in a stronger position to shoot himself, or attempts the killer vertical ball when a few innocuous lateral "tiki-taka" passes would help to impose a more controlled tempo on the contest.
To many South African fans, the words "long" and "pass" are a bit dirty in combination, conjuring images of an antiquated "skop en donner" style of football. And the indifferent quality of much of the long passing in the PSL these days doesn't help to improve the connotation.
But the flawless long through-ball can be as gratifying to witness as the most artful goal. By applying a formula of weight, spin and placement, the skilful regista has to solve three problems with one swipe of his boot:
(a) locate his forward at the precise spot he will occupy in two second's time;
(b) propel the forward towards goal, preferably without even demanding a first touch to control or redirect the ball; and
(c) evade the attempted interceptions of defenders. If the ball stays on the carpet throughout its journey, all the better: the constraint improves the feat, just as the use of rhyme and metre makes a good poem better.
At its best, the classic regista pass elicits the feeling of happy amazement you'd get if you saw a puppy making its way unscathed across the N1 North during rush-hour traffic. Chiefs fans might not get to feel that feeling tomorrow but Letsholonyane will try his utmost to give it to them.