It is still Kaizer Chiefs against Orlando Pirates that can bring the country to a standstill, but the Chiefs’ clash against Mamelodi Sundowns at the FNB Stadium on Saturday is likely to come close to it and will be the pick of the weekend fixtures following the week-long international Fifa break.
Several players refused to grant interviews, stressing that they have been given strict instructions not to speak to the media unless the media got permission from the
teams’ respective offices. This is clearly a reflection of the tensions running through both camps before the clash.
Brian Baloyi, one of the few individuals to have played for both Chiefs and Sundowns, was this week adamant that the stature of the clashes between the Amakhosi and the Yellow Machine in recent years has risen considerably — in fact, enough for the game to be designated a category A match by the Premier Soccer League.
“The Soweto Derby is still regarded as the greatest game of the season,” said Baloyi, who is now the Chiefs’ goalkeeper coach. “But I feel that, on paper, games against Sundowns are now huge as well, because often a league title or a cup is at play.”
The league title is certainly on offer here. And, although both teams are challenging strongly for the championship, they both know that whoever gets eliminated and drops points at this stage will suffer irreparable damage to their title aspirations.
“Chiefs and Sundowns are both vying for the league title,” Baloyi added. “It will be a game of immense importance, with so much at stake. I can’t wait for the match to kick off. It promises to be a thriller and I expect our fans to turn up in numbers to support the team.”
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane accepts that Saturday is the “big one”, acknowledging that the Brazilians have not been entirely successful in overcoming the Chiefs in their past seven matches, losing twice and winning three of their matches, whereas the other two ended in draws.
“You can’t have them all,” said Mosimane this week when asked about the possibility of a league and cup double. “You can’t take them all; somebody must take this, others must win that. You know SuperSport United comes late, a little bit of the Nedbank … it’s okay.
“We can’t take everything, hey? But, we must challenge for the league, and take the CAF [Confederation of African Football] champions, take the big fish — now that’s something,” said the man voted Coach of the Year in 2016 and ranked among the world’s 10 best coaches.
Because of pan-African club assignments, Sundowns currently lie fifth on the table, two points behind fourth-positioned Chiefs, but analysts are predicting that the players’ African tours will eventually result in them suffering from fatigue, whereas the Chiefs will end the season as fresh as daisies.
Chiefs coach Steve Komphela has managed to steady the ship, which has seen the men from Naturena rise to fourth on the table after a wobbly start, which led to some of their supporters campaigning to force the coach from the team.
Five straight victories were halted by three consecutive stalemates against Orlando Pirates, Ajax Cape Town and their hoodoo side, Baroka. Despite the hiccup, they have displayed enough form to indicate that they could mount a strong challenge for the championship.
After a tepid 2-2 draw against Baroka in Polokwane in their last match before the international break, Komphela expressed his concern about his defence, which he felt was not solid enough. “I thought the goals we gave away … were lapses of concentration,” he said.
“The first one, we lost possession in the centre of the field and we paid the price. The second one, we allowed the runner to go on and eventually he scored.”
Sharpness is needed against a hard-running Sundowns side that boasts quality front men such as Percy Tau, Leonardo Castro and Anthony Laffor.
But what Sundowns can do, Chiefs think they can do better. After Sundowns recruited Columbian Castro, who proved an instant hit with the Tshwane outfit, Chiefs also went the South American route and brought back Gustavo Páez.
“I’m really excited about this game,” Páez is reported as saying on the Chiefs’ website. “My wife and I visited my friend from Sundowns [Castro] a few days ago and we spoke about how crucial this game is for our respective teams.
“We are both looking forward to playing against each other. We forget about our friendship on the field of play and focus on getting the three points.”
Although there is no doubt about the qualities of both teams, there are potential match-winners on both sides — with Siphiwe Tshabalala and Bernard Parker likely to influence the game for the home side.
And, for Sundowns, their high pressure game, laced with inter-passing and quick transitions, make them very dangerous adversaries who sometimes confuse their opponents by playing without a central striker — with either Tau or Khama Billiat taking the role of leading the charge.
But, after everything has been said and done, it will be the team with the mental strength and nerves of steel for the duration of the match who will win this epic encounter.