|KEY ROLE: Willard Katsande|
WHILE everybody is scrabbling about trying to find out just how long South Africa’s perfect start to a season extends, Kaizer Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter is quietly getting on with what could be a sensationally good third term at Naturena.
Saturday’s workmanlike 1-0 win over Maritzburg United was nothing to marvel at in isolation. Having won the MTN8 without conceding a goal, the Telkom KO campaign is now underway. Add that to their seven wins to start the PSL season and you come up with remarkable statistics: 12 wins, two goals conceded, three goalkeepers used.
That’s when you start to get excited, along with the estimated 15 million AmaKhosi who wander the streets of South Africa, occasionally attending Kaizer Chiefs matches – far too rarely if you ask me. A team in this sort of form demands a HUGE following.
Baxter, heavily criticised on the social networks for dropping MTN8 final Man of the Match Brilliant Khuzwayo and sticking young Reyaad Pieterse in goal for the injured Itumeleng Khune, appears to know exactly what he’s doing.
This week, he could have all three custodians back in training. Up front, he perseveres with the slightly uncomfortable Kingston Nkatha situation, while relishing the return of back-from-surgery Bernard Parker, who scored the only goal on Saturday.
In midfield, he can fiddle while the others burn: either of the Georges, Lebese or Maluleka; Reneilwe Yeye Letsholonwane, Mandla Masango, Simphiwe Tshabalala are all options. Regular readers of this column will know all about the staggering consistency of defensive midfielder Willard Katsande, the key to it all.
With a perfect start building to something of a phenomenon, Baxter stoically refuses to celebrate. “It was okay. We played well for half-an-hour. But we can do better.”
The Wolverhampton-born coach has been thrown to the Wolves before. After winning the title in his first season – no other foreign coach has managed that – the long unbeaten record last season fell apart and Mamelodi Sundowns’ incredible depth saw they surge away with the PSL championship.
Not this time. Baxter is carefully grooming new players, forging a larger squad as the African Champions League looms. He knows, after years in far flung corners of the football-speaking globe, that mistakes can be excused. But repeating last year’s blunder just isn’t an option. He cannot afford another end-of-season collapse.
“I’ve got two full squads in training,” Baxter told me, “We can mix and match this season. We might need to. We aren’t there yet, but we are getting there.”
As Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns progressed to the Telkom KO quarter-finals with a similar lack of panache (Ajax Cape Town may just be the early favourites for this particular piece of silverware, though coach Roger De Sa returns to Pirates in a tough quarter-final in Orlando), Baxter won’t be troubled by those who say the runaway train is about to derail. He’ll accept a draw or even a defeat over the next few weeks. That’s football. Chiefs are not Invincibles… yet.
The point is, Baxter has enlarged his squad. He has set out his stall while staying well ahead of his big-spending rivals. Sky-scraping centre-backs Tefu Mashamaite, Morgan Gould and Tower Mathoho can launder their clean sheets in front of any one of the three goalkeepers. Katsande, relying more and more on interceptions and less on rock-hard tackling, holds the midfield together no matter who surrounds him. Bernard Parker – with Nkatha and the soon-to-return Katlego “Killer” Mphela – can get the goals necessary to maintain their strong start.
If they fail, impressive reserve goal-getter Hendrick Ekstein, 23, is pushing hard or a place in the first team squad.
Right now, Kaizer Chiefs are showing the kind of form any side in the world would envy… while their coach is preparing for a long, long season. The only thing I fail to understand is this: why aren’t the mighty AmaKhosi turning up in their thousands to see this footballing phenomenon?