/ 20 October 2017

Fire up the Soweto derby

Bernard Parker
Bernard Parker

Fortune favours the brave, favour belongs to the valiant. However you choose to mix up your proverbs, there’s an unspoken truth in football that adventurism is bound to reap rewards.

The giants of Soweto will do well to remember that when they clash this weekend in the first derby of the season. We yearn for a live wire to be thrown into the pool of animosity but remain all too realistic that we may be in for a damp squib. Recent form lives stubbornly in our minds, blocking the imagination of tectonic plates shifting because of activity from the FNB Stadium.

Jostling for position, the group atop the Premier Soccer League resembles an unforgiving pack so far this season. Both Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates will be acutely aware that any dropped points could see them ruthlessly ostracised. Baroka and Golden Arrows sit pretty, though Cape Town City will probably bemoan the ridiculously short turnaround from their loss in the MTN 8 final as the cause for their less lofty position. Sundowns meanwhile find themselves firmly in the mix, despite having played three fewer games than everybody else.

It is the Brazilians, however, that have given Amakhosi a priceless boost going into the weekend. A not-so-mixed bag of inconsistency, Steve Komphela’s men headed into Loftus on Tuesday as firm underdogs.

And understandably so. The team has failed to create in abundance this term, while simultaneously appearing uncomfortably shaky at the back. Itumeleng Khune’s capture of the PSL player of the month for the August/September period is testament to how much he has been relied on so far. A few log points at the very least have been largely owed to the man recently hailed for having the “best distribution I have ever seen” by Bafana coach Stuart Baxter.

But even he can’t save us from the awkward sight of watching Chiefs’ attackers go to work. Like his faith in Khune, Komphela has arguably been too eager to rely on his wily vets to produce results. It has long been suspected that when Siphiwe Tshabalala decides to turn it up a notch so do his teammates. The problem is he hasn’t done so often enough, leaving a hunger for creativity.

Bernard Parker in particular remains sterile when starved for creativity. At the centre of the failure to transition the ball from attack has been Hendrick Ekstein. Embroiled in a contract stand-off a few months ago, he has failed to produce consistent performances and offer sufficient creativity. “Pule” needs to deliver a lot more to warrant the high ratings he garners from many of the Amakhosi faithful.

Thankfully he did just that in Tuesday’s victory against Sundowns. With the exception of two half chances off counters, Chiefs settled into their familiar defensive rhythm in the first half. Keen to sit back, absorb pressure and hit on the counter, it looked set to be a movie we have seen all too often recently. Percy Tau was also beating their midfield line with ease and it seemed only a matter of time until a pass unlocked the defence to unleash Khama Billiat.

After the break, however, came what we know the Glamour Boys are capable of. Tshabalala threatened before George Maluleka whipped in a dangerous, curling cross to serve Siyabonga Ngezana a debut goal. The 19-year-old was solid in the heart of defence, helping to steady a hull that’s been hit with something of an injury crisis.

It was then Ekstein’s turn to turn up the style. After “best-in-the-world” Khune’s kick wasn’t handled by the opposing centre backs, the playmaker took one touch on the halfway line before releasing a lobbed through-ball that would have made Andrea Pirlo blush. Parker latched on to the pass before cutting back, leaving Motjeka Madisha for dead, and curling precisely into the far corner. The finish, poignantly reminiscent of the striker’s ruthless best, ultimately propelled the team to a 2-1 win.

Meanwhile, rivals Orlando Pirates have failed to discover a consistent brand of creativity. The Buccaneers have struggled for goals this season and have a sturdy defence and Wayne Sandilands to thank for their position in the top eight. The veteran keeper has been a key signing and, like his opposing number Khune, has been instrumental in keeping his team in games.

The parallels between the Soweto giants continue up front. Again, the primary suspect has been the supply as the creators have failed to find the precision necessary to unlock PSL defences. Mpho Makola, Thembinkosi Lorch and Thabo Qalinge are arguably the main culprits who have failed to pitch in adequately when called up. Thamsanqa Gabuza has also arguably been overrelied on up front. If the target man is injured or falls out of favour, the goals may dry up further.

This sentiment was echoed by Andries Sebola last week. The legendary Ghosts forward suggested that perhaps the solution lies in Milutin Sredojevic setting up a more attacking 4-4-2 rather than the currently used 4-2-3-1.

“My main concern is going forward,” City Press quoted him as saying. “They are too reliant on one striker and I think if he changes the formation we will get more goals.”

On the upside, Thamsanqa Sangweni is about to return to bolster the midfield in a huge boost for the Bucs. Coach “Micho” will be hoping the 28-year-old can seamlessly rejoin his squad after two months on the sidelines with a knee injury.

Chiefs thus prepare to take on a side whose struggles eerily mirror their own. We know that both teams are equally capable of turning up the pressure and dishing out the style when called upon. The question is: Will they? It is likely to be a cagey affair because of the reserved nature of the defences in question, and the side that decides to take a gamble could very well seize the advantage. Fortune favours the brave, after all. But let’s hope it’s the foolhardy and audacious who pitch up.

Perhaps the world-renowned nature of the occasion will be enough to produce the best football we have seen out of Soweto this year. The infinitely philosophical Komphela’s whimsical summary after his side’s victory against the Brazilians stands true: “Some players played very well under pressure … like a tea bag, the only time you get the best out of a tea bag is when you put it in hot water.”