Tuesday, 18 February 2014

AFRICAN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPECIAL: How Kaizer Chiefs can reach the group stages. With great difficulty

The long and winding road: for Chiefs boss Stuart Baxter

THE African Champions League remains a mystery to our football-loving folk. For too long, it was a pain in the neck for our PSL winners. For nearly a decade, South Africa let the biggest prize on the continent go nearly unmarked.

But after Orlando Pirates' sensational progress to last year’s final, surely it’s time to put our local Champions League back where it belongs? As the rand slips globally, the $1.5m prize-money is starting to look like a reason in itself, with the runners-up earning $1m.

With the 50th edition of the tournament now well underway, debate rages on the social networks about exactly what Kaizer Chiefs do from here after their preliminary round triumph over Namibia’s Black Africa.

It’s simple. Two more rounds over two legs to reach the Group Stages. But it promises to be unbelievably tough.

Last season, Orlando Pirates beat Djabal from the Comoros in the preliminary round, with a 5-0 win at home added to a 4-0 away win in a 9-0 drubbing.

Then the Buccaneers came up against dangerous Zambian champions Zanaco in the first round proper. An impressive 1-0 away win was followed by a 2-1 win at Orlando – remember Mpho Makola’s free-kick? The 3-1 aggregate win was a welcome triumph; people from beyond the Ghost started to sit up and take notice.

It was the second round which so nearly derailed the Pirates. First came the surprise 3-1 home win over DRC’s all-conquering TP Mazembe. The now-departed Onyekachi Okonkwo and two from Zambia's now unfancied Collins Mbesuma did the job, but after the game, the referee was punched by a visiting official, who escape despite attention from the South African Police.

That was just a clue to what was to come.

The away game in Lubumbashi goes down as Roger de Sa’s greatest achievement. The SABC’s television coverage was blacked out, journalists were detained, veteran captain Lucky Lekgwathi was sent off and two dubious penalties were saved by an ever-improving Senzo Meyiwa. A miracle… and they were in to the group stages with TWO Egyptian giants and the TP Mazembe fans cheered the team off.

That much is history.

To get that far in 2014, our runaway PSL leaders Kaizer Chiefs will have to achieve similar feats.

First up, amateurs Black Africa were destroyed 3-0 at Soccer City before Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Windhoek. Not quite as easy as it looked against a bunch of lads who admitted to being AmaKhosi in their spare time.

But now the road through Africa becomes far tougher.

Next up for Baxter and his men? It’s a mouthful: Liga Desportivo Muçulmana de Maputo, otherwise known as LDMM or Liga Maculmana.

One of the richest clubs in a nation rapidly rising up the economic ladder, LDMM won the Moçambola (Mozambique’s top division) for the first time in 2010. They’ve won it twice since, in 2011 and 2013.

The good news? They’ve never got beyond the first round in the Champions League and have just one Brazilian – a goalkeeper called Caio Venâncio – and a couple of Ghanaians. They also only managed a 1-0 aggregate win in the preliminary round over Madagascar’s CNaPS Sport.

Chiefs play LDMM with the first leg in a fortnight, the second over the weekend of 7-9 March.

And then the real challenge: Zimbabwe champions Dynamos or AS Vita from the Congo with both legs played before the end of March.

Dynamos, known as Harare’s “Glamour Boys” or “DeMbare” are essentially Zimbabwe’s Kaizer Chiefs, boasting an estimated 6million fans and 21 league titles. Eight of their players featured in the CHAN tournament in South Africa last month, where Zimbabwe reached the semi-finals.

AS Vita are no mugs either, with five African Champions League performances to their name. The away leg promises to be as spectacularly difficult as TP Mazembe were for Orlando Pirates.

Stuart Baxter knows how hard it’s going to be. Pirates achieved the improbable last season and Chiefs are not quite firing on all cylinders, having ended their nine-game winning run with a draw against Maritzburg last week.

Baxter grins: “I think Buddha said that success is like licking honey from a sword. The more you lick it, the closer you get to the day you cut your throat. I hope that day is about three months away … we will do our best.”

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