Chiefs face a sundowner
By the time Kaizer Chiefs run out against Bloemfontein Celtic at the Free State Stadium next Wednesday night, they will probably already have had their handsome lead at the head of the Premier Soccer League standings cut.
Last year Chiefs turned the corner in the PSL campaign with an 11-point advantage over Mamelodi Sundowns but slumped alarmingly to concede the title with two rounds of the championship still to play.
This time they restart after the mid-season break with a 15-point lead, although second-placed Sundowns have a catch-up game in hand, so it is an effective 12-point gap.
That could be cut by a further three points on Tuesday when the league starts and Sundowns are fancied to win at home to mercurial Moroka Swallows in a match that kicks off 24 hours before Chiefs return to competitive action. Should Sundowns take all three points as expected then Chiefs’ advantage suddenly loses its daunting aura.
Last season, by Stuart Baxter’s own admission, the wheels came off when Chiefs lost heavily in the African Champions League in Kinshasa and Knowledge Musona hurt his foot and missed the vital last month of the season.
Combined with a record-breaking streak for Mamelodi Sundowns, unencumbered by the distraction of cup football, it saw a dramatic swing in fortune and, ultimately, Pitso Mosimane’s side crowned champions.
This time, however, the scenario is different. Like Chiefs, Sundowns will also compete in the Champions League and they have made no secret of their ambition to try to conquer the continent.
The liberal purchasing of players by Mosimane over the past two years has been to build a fulsome squad that can handle both the rigours of competing for domestic honours with the dream of becoming only the second South African outfit to win the top club prize on the continent.
But history shows this is a difficult act to juggle.
Baxter is not as keen on Champions League glory. He saw last year’s entry as a burden rather than a challenge and is not exactly purring over having another opportunity this time round. For Chiefs, winning back the league title from Sundowns remains his major goal and the motivation not to let a serious lead slip again will see a more insular approach.
But even then there is no guarantee they will be able to hold on to a comfortable lead. Sundowns will be a niggling threat and the likes of Bidvest Wits and Orlando Pirates could yet challenge, if they can put together a consistent run of points snatching.
Chiefs and Sundowns made minor alterations to their squad in the January transfer window with David Zulu in and Kingston Nkhatha out for the league leaders while Sundowns loaned out another pile of players in an admission that their previous “buy-everything-at-all-costs” policy has been wasteful and without due consideration.
But both clubs will have to rely on their tried-and-tested stars and what is key in the next months is form rather than reinforcement.