Ahead of their 10th league meeting since Kaizer Chiefs last beat Orlando Pirates, Daniel Mothowagae wonders if Amakhosi can finally turn the tide in their favour.
That Kaizer Chiefs head into Saturday’s Soweto derby as the underdogs tells a story of how the mighty Amakhosi have fallen.
Not so long ago, Chiefs used to grind out wins even on bad days in this epic fixture, but not any more.
For the record, they last defeated Orlando Pirates in a league fixture four years ago.
An international football expert once observed that, when great teams crumble, the diagnosis is often complex.
This is the situation right now at Chiefs, whose problems have been exacerbated by long-term injuries to key players, including influential goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune.
Coach Ernst Middendorp has for some time downplayed the absence of the injured Bafana Bafana No 1, and often gets irritated when asked if he would look for an experienced goalie as a back-up for the mistake-prone Virgil Vries.
Only after Vries’ latest howler that gifted Cape Town City a fortuitous victory midweek did Middendorp admit that “it’s nice to protect players, which is what we are doing, but on the other side, you must be capable”.
The German tactician hinted immediately after the 1-0 loss to City on Wednesday that the Amakhosi technical team would use the week leading before the derby “to see who is next in the goalposts on Saturday”.
Middendorp said he fully understood that supporters were unhappy about the team’s poor results, but the truth was that he inherited a team devoid of depth.
On paper, Pirates once again look odds-on favourites against a Chiefs team they have already beaten twice in this campaign.
On both the occasions Bucs triumphed over their cross-town rivals, coach Milutin Sredojevic exploited the soft spots in the Amakhosi rearguard, which has been altered at every turn this season.
The Amakhosi defence battled to keep up with the pace of the Bucs attack last time around.
Pirates have been thriving on speedy players such as Thembinkosi Lorch, Vincent Pule and Justin Shonga.
Former Pirates defender Lucky Lekgwathi said Pirates owe much of their dominance over Chiefs to the fact that they have reverted to their “traditional style of play”, and the depth in the team was a plus factor.
“If you look at the current Pirates squad, they are full of energy and these boys – except for Happy Jele, who has been around for many years – want to prove a point each time they play in the derby,” observed the retired Pirates skipper.
“Also, you need a leader at the back and this is something that Chiefs are lacking at the moment.”
Lekgwathi likened Lorch to Benedict “Tso” Vilakazi, the diminutive maestro who could turn the epic fixture on its head thanks to his intelligent play, which often resulted in goals.
Despite the odds being heavily stacked against the 60-year-old Middendorp and his team, erstwhile Chiefs defender Fabian McCarthy has not lost hope.
“Middendorp is not afraid to take risks,” said the retired defender.
“It is good that they go into the game as underdogs, which means Pirates are the ones who are under pressure to win.
“If the [Chiefs] defenders can go in there and say: ‘Let’s keep it clean and put pressure on the guys upfront to score,’ that’s the kind of harmony and understanding that can swing things their way.”
While the Khama Billiat and Leonardo Castro combination has fizzled out a bit, the two still possess the quality of play for the big occasion.
Castro, in particular, often sneaks in to convert even the slightest of chances when the Colombian is kept unchecked.
The two former Mamelodi Sundowns attackers were on the scoresheet during the past two defeats to Pirates.