Only pride to play for
Kaizer Chiefs set aside the tentativeness of the past weeks and returned to type again just in time for Saturday’s derby with their archrivals Orlando Pirates.
Victory in midweek over Ajax Cape Town offered them their first league win of the new year after two matches without success in the title race since returning from the mid-season break with an air of apprehension and none of the conviction of the first half of the campaign.
That might yet not be fully returned but Chiefs’s 1-0 win on Wednesday is a massive fillip at a crucial juncture, even if achieved without the strength of performance that coach Stuart Baxter demands.
It is a result that has succeeded in taking away much of the tasty edge that was beginning to percolate before the derby. Before both Chiefs and Pirates played on Wednesday, this was shaping up to be one of the most important, and intriguing, meetings between the two rivals in years.
Proficiency in getting out of the gates
Chiefs’s shaky return to action had contrasted somewhat starkly with Pirates’s proficiency in getting out of the gates and the 12-point gap between the two sides did not seem as imposing as it should have, given the diminishing number of remaining fixtures.
But after Chiefs’s success over Ajax, and Pirates’s slip in Phuthaditjhaba against Free State Stars at the same time, there is now a 14-point difference between the neighbours and an altogether different air about the derby.
Now Saturday’s match at Soccer City no longer offers Pirates a very real chance to clamber their way into the title race. Instead, it is only an opportunity to play something of a spoiling role and maybe win some short-lived bragging rights.
Pirates were suggesting last weekend they could yet be contenders – even coming from some way behind in the standings – but a lot of that was predicated on Chiefs continuing to stumble and Pirates continuing to win.
Wednesday’s results brought a suddenly halt to that scenario.
Even if mathematically Pirates are still within their rights to hold out hopes of a miraculous late surge to success, subconsciously they will know this is now a near impossible task. As a result, it will be only natural if there is not the same motivation to succeed on Saturday as there might have been before the midweek matches.
Of course, Chiefs are still a long way off securing the championship but are back to the workmanlike methodology that has characterised their proficient progress throughout the campaign.
Defensively they are as resolute as ever with still only 10 goals conceded in 21 matches. Wednesday’s result against Ajax delivered Chiefs’s 13th clean sheet of the season and is the bedrock of their considerable advantage on the log.
That lead could be extended to a formidable 13 points over second-placed BidVest Wits if Gavin Hunt’s men lose tonight – Friday – at home to a resurgent Bloemfontein Celtic and with eight games to go after that it would seem inconceivable that Chiefs would surrender such a healthy advantage.
Mamelodi Sundowns, another side still with a hope of the championship title, make the difficult trip to Phuthaditjhaba to face Stars on Saturday night needing to bounce back quickly after their 1-0 defeat to Wits on Tuesday.
Chiefs are still shy of rhythm and need more assertiveness in attack, which Baxter warns must change.
“Results will go up and down but, ultimately, the title race will be won on performance. If we concentrate on performance then the results will take care of themselves, otherwise you open up several Pandora’s boxes,” said Baxter.
After being rested in midweek, Siphiwe Tshabalala could be drafted back as Baxter looks for a burst of inspiration from a player with fading talents but who still has a Midas touch.
Pirates will play with two strikers again and probably combine Lehlohonolo Majoro and Kermit Erasmus for the first time in four games. It is a combination that holds out much promise but needs time to gel.
Pirates have lost the last three league and cup encounters between the two rivals and not won in their past five meetings stretching back to August 2013. Their last win in the league came back in 2012 when Benni McCarthy scored twice in a 3-2 success that, for many Pirates fans, will feel like a distant memory.
With coach Eric Tinkler hoping to persuade the club he has the credentials for the coaching position beyond this season, a derby victory is important, not least because it can be the barometer by which most fans measure the fortunes of the club.
A win and they will be seen as on the up, but defeat will bring doom and gloom and potentially set up an anxious finish to the season for the club.