Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Kaizer Chiefs – Reclaiming the Glory

The Gauteng Cup...
Not quite the Absa Premiership
Stuart Baxter must be a very happy man. Six games in and Kaizer Chiefs have made one of their best starts to a season and, at the moment, look undisputed favourites to be crowned champions of South Africa come next May.

It’s a massive transformation, even from where Chiefs were at the start of the season when Amakhosi were humbled 4-1 by Mamelodi Sundowns in the MTN8 Cup.

Since then AmaZulu, the self-same Sundowns, Black Leopards, Bidvest Wits and Chippa United have been brushed aside in the league, with Amakhosi’s only blip coming in the form of a goalless draw in the Free State with Steve Komphela’s plucky Stars.

Having been present at the Loftus massacre Chiefs’ early league form represents a remarkable makeover.

On that August afternoon Chiefs were dreadful. They were overrun, out-fought and out-thought by Downs, and certainly, there were no signs of a Championship team that day.

Fast forward two months and Loftus is but a distant memory. Amakhosi are playing with a swagger not seen since the days of Ted Dumitru’s back-to-back league winning side of 2004 and 2005.

Resultantly, Chiefs are four points clear at the top of the Absa Premiership, scoring 15 goals in the process while only conceding three.

The most impressive feature of Chiefs’ start has been the regularity at which they are creating chances. For this credit goes to Baxter and the atmosphere he seems to have created at the club. There seems to be real cohesion, harmony and freedom within the team, a sea-change from the reign of Serb Vladimir Vermezovic, especially in his last days.

Master tactician... Stuart Baxter
The man tasked with Reclaiming the Glory for Kaizer Chiefs
True to his British roots Baxter has employed a standard 4-4-2 system with two out-and-out strikers and a relatively flat midfield. However, what has been notable is the system is not a rigid one. Instead Baxter has allowed his players to express themselves while also maintaining a level of discipline and shape, by no means an easy feat.

The intelligence of Baxter’s strikers has also afforded flexibility at the tip of the team allowing Chiefs to shift through variants of the 4-4-2 formation during games – on occasion shifting to five in the middle and allowing the fullbacks to overlap menacingly whenever possible.

Bernard Parker has been a revelation this season with his goals. His seven strikes in five starts is a new record. But above that, his understanding with strike partner Kingston Nkhatha has been crucial. Both have been willing to drop deep to collect the ball and build play or make runs in behind and open space, causing mayhem in the defences trying to mark them.

The flexibility of Siphiwe Tshabalala and George Lebese, for example, on the wings has also seen striking interchangeability where various players pop up in dangerous areas and make multiple runs for the man in possession. This has been the key to Chiefs’ early success because this ability to score goals has taken them to the next level.

Amakhosi have always been solid defensively. In the past six seasons they’ve ranked amongst the league’s top five teams defensively, boasting the best defence in the last two. But this season Chiefs are scoring freely as well, a combination not seen since the days of Collins Mbesuma.

Naturally, for one who’s been in the game for so long, Baxter is refusing to get dragged into talk that his team are title favourites.

“It’s too early to tell (if we are favourites). The league title is a marathon rather than a short sprint,” has been Baxter’s latest riposte.

Circumstances have also been kind to the Englishman. The forced introduction of Willard Katsande, for example, unleashed the creative potential of midfield maestro Reneilwe Letsholonyane while playing at Soccer City gives Chiefs a ‘home’.

There’ve been other fortunes as well in what’s seemed a perfect storm of a season so far for the Glamour Boys.
Focused... Bernard Parker
Kaizer Chiefs' lethal assassin...
One has been the apparent inclination of their rivals to self-destruct, to the point that, at this moment in time, there seems no team capable of truly challenging Chiefs for the title.

Two-time defending champions Orlando Pirates, like it or not, are in a rebuilding phase. Two years on from the original Treble under Ruud Krol, we are now, naturally, seeing the effects of his departure. Last season was a year in which the team could have carried itself. We’ve seen this on several occasions in sport, with Chelsea immediately after Jose Mourinho and the Springboks following the departure of Jake White – great sides can carry themselves for a certain period of time.

Now there is a new coach – Roger De Sa – at Pirates. He has come in after the start of the season which means he hasn’t had the luxury of a pre-season to properly prepare the team. He is coming in with a different philosophy to what the players have been used to and, as seen in the defeat to Bloemfontein Celtic, it will take time for it all to click. The problem, though, is Pirates have to be consistently winning games home and away in order to mount a challenge for the title, and the moment this doesn’t seem likely.

Sundowns, many people’s pre-season favourites, have even bigger problems.

Their embarrassment of riches has caused confusion, derision and complacency in a toxic cocktail. Johan Neeskens doesn’t seem to know which team to pick while rumours of players unrest have never been far from the surface at Sundowns in recent years.

Downs have made their worst-ever start to a season since the PSL was launched in 1996/97, collecting four points from six games and they look far from being title contenders. Three-time champions SuperSport, though unbeaten, are also finding it difficult to win games – five draws in six games can attest to that.

With these perennial contenders struggling, it leaves the also-rans to challenge Chiefs – University of Pretoria, Free State Stars and Moroka Swallows.

The Chiefs Dance...
Will Amakhosi be dancing come next May?

Although it’s a bit unkind to label Swallows, league runners-up last year and recent MTN8 champions, as also-rans their focus is only now being fully shifted to the league and as a result they have quite a gap to make up on Chiefs – seven points worth. Added to that, it remains to be seen whether the Birds can last the race under new coach Zeca Marques.

Nevertheless, on the face of it, Swallows seem to be Chiefs’ main competition. Their transfer policy over the past two seasons has been the league’s most prudent. They have bought established players from top teams with quality and experience who perhaps didn’t get a fair rub of the green previously. These players come to Swallows hungry and with a point to prove. This formula has so far worked wonders.

Tuks are the fairytale story of the season and with each passing week it becomes increasingly difficult to put a limit on what they can achieve. Their 5-1 demolition of Ajax in Cape Town was a stunning affirmation of their potential. Steve Barker’s side are possibly the fittest team in the league. This has been evidenced by how strong they’ve grown as games have worn on. They’ll win a fair share of matches this season. Tuks lie second in the league behind Chiefs and are unbeaten.

Free State Stars are coached by South Africa’s finest young tactician in Komphela. They are extremely difficult to beat, hence their unbeaten record and third place on the table. But they have never been involved a title chase. Just like Tuks and Swallows, they’ve never been over the finish line and that’s always a decisive factor when the season reaches its climatic stages.

It’s all on Chiefs, though. Amakhosi’s upcoming run of fixtures is not easy but, in their current form, it is definitely manageable. They face Celtic (home), Maritzburg United (away) and Golden Arrows (home) in their next three games.

The saying goes; ‘you can’t win the league in December’. But at the rate Chiefs are going they could have one hand firmly on the PSL title by the end of 2012.

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