Are the Soweto giants on course to reclaim glory?

With the flames of the fierce local football rivalry recently having been fanned, the jury’s still out on whether Chiefs and Pirates can overcome their demons in the silverware department.

The towering Augustine Mulenga is built like a heavyweight boxer. Once he drops his shy demeanour, the Zambian and Orlando Pirates forward even speaks like one. “I am not a small player. I am a big player. I play for the national team and I’ve got too much confidence when I have the ball. If any defender comes at me, I have to take him on because it’s my job,” Mulenga said during the post-match conference at FNB Stadium last Saturday. 
He did his job with aplomb during the Soweto Derby, inspiring his side to a 2-1 win over their archrivals Kaizer Chiefs. Saturday’s match was certainly a heavyweight affair in front of a sold-out FNB Stadium, with the match beamed to millions of others in 44 countries. The derby is still enticing even though the two sides have fallen behind Mamelodi Sundowns, Bidvest Wits and, to an extent, SuperSport United, in terms of recent league and Cup successes.

27 October 2018: Pirates striker Augustine Mulenga tormented the Chiefs defenders before boasting about not being afraid to take on defenders.

Both Soweto giants have gone three seasons without a trophy. In that period, between them, Sundowns, Wits and SuperSport lifted 9 of the 12 trophies on offer. The power, however, still rests with the two Soweto giants as they command the most fans, have the biggest  sponsors and draw the largest broadcast audiences.

But the millions of supporters who have watched these teams over the past few seasons have been disappointed and, at times, angry, resulting in violence (the Ghost at Loftus and Amakhosi faithfuls at Moses Mabhida Stadium). What this kind of conduct by the fans showed was a deep-seated anger with their teams’ lacklustre performances, and more worryingly that violence seems to be their most efficient form of communication.
Chiefs reacted by accepting Steve Komphela’s resignation in April, while the Buccaneers moved to hire a permanent coach last year after having gone more than three months with an interim manager. They eventually settled on Serbian coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojević, who had a short stint with the club more than a decade ago.

Soul-healing mission

Sredojević has turned things around at the Sea Robbers, having rescued them from sinking two seasons ago to finishing a respectable second last season, where they currently lie in this campaign. “We had a soul-healing mission last season,” said the Serbian. “If you remember, when I came here, social media was full of jokes about Orlando Pirates. They were punching us left, right and centre. The pride of this great institution, led by our chairman [Irvin Khoza], was tarnished. 

“We came together and had a good season last season. I promised myself that I will not dwell much on our performance from last season. This is a new season and the way the matches are coming, we have no right to get carried away. The duty at Orlando Pirates is always to have the highest possible target and to win everything on offer.”
Sredojević hasn’t delivered a trophy just yet, but he has given the Bucs two big reasons to celebrate this year in the form of consecutive Soweto Derby wins, one in March and the other last Saturday. The Serbian’s biggest challenge at Pirates is sustaining their momentum, as it seems they take two steps forward only to take a step back.
But the win over their Soweto rivals on Saturday will surely give Pirates the confidence they need to be worthwhile contenders for the league title and hold their own on the continent, an aspect Sredojević has been mindful of as he rotates his squad to keep players fresh.

27 October 2018: Chiefs coach Giovanni Solinas defended his decision to field Mario Booysen and Siyabonga Ngezana. Saturday’s derby was the pair’s third match together.

Solinas’ tactical ineptitude 

 But for Giovanni Solinas, Sredojević’s Italian counterpart at Kaizer Chiefs, squad rotation backfired on Saturday. In what was only their third match together, Siyabonga Ngezana and Mario Booysen struggled to cope with the Bucs’ fast and deadly attack. The decision to field the pair in a game of this magnitude exposed Solinas’ tactical ineptitude. Among Ngezana and Booysen’s best qualities is their aerial strength, but Pirates hardly went the aerial route in their attack, preferring rather to play it on the ground while Mulenga and company swapped roles in their arrow-like, three-pronged attack.

Solinas snapped at criticism of his decision to play a defensive pair who weren’t used to each other, especially on such a big stage. “This is the second question about the central defenders,” he interjected at a question that was directed at Chiefs’ goalkeeper and captain, Itumeleng Khune, who admitted that communicating with Ngezana and Booysen was difficult due to the noise from the crowd. “Guys! Listen to me,’ the coach continued, “I don’t change my defenders because of who we are playing, whether it’s Pirates, Sundowns, Wits or any other team. 

“Our defenders were not poor [against Pirates]. I believe in my defenders, not just the defenders that played but also the ones in the bench and the stands. We have good defenders. I am not concerned about this. We have the best defenders in South Africa. This is my opinion. I respect your opinion. Guys! I am the coach.”
If what Solinas is saying is true – that Chiefs have the best defenders in South Africa – then all fingers point back to him for failing to master defending, an aspect of the game his Italian compatriots have turned into an art form. Under Solinas, Chiefs lack structure and cohesiveness in their defensive patterns.

Rhulani Mokwena, Pirates’ assistant coach and the protégé of former Chiefs coach Steve Komphela, was scathing in his assessment of how Amakhosi have evolved since the last derby in March. “Without sounding bias, due to my allegiance to Steve, I think that losing Steve Komphela was a big loss for Chiefs from a technical perspective in terms of the the type of leader that he is and the technical acumen that he possess. When you compare the previous team to this team, from an organisational perspective, you can clearly see the lack of a coach of that calibre, without taking anything away from the current head coach. But I do think that when Steve Komphela was around, you could see how they played,” said Mokwena.

27 October 2018: Pirates’ ‘sprinkler’, in red, argues with Chiefs’ ‘sprinkler’ during the pitch inspection.

Igniting the rivalry

Mokwena’s words fanned the flames of a recently reinvigorated rivalry, as Saturday’s 164th Soweto Derby bucked the trend of a fixture that has, over the years, not quite lived up to the billing. On Saturday, no side wanted to give an inch to their rivals, almost to a comical end. The two clubs’ technical areas were protected by “bouncers”, who were instructed to not allow any “outsiders” to step into their area. During the pre-match inspection, both teams sprinkled some liquids on the pitch. Pirates’ dedicated “sprinkler” went as far as to wait for Chiefs’ “sprinkler” man to finish on the left goals before doing more sprinkling, possibly to “wash” away whatever his opposite number had left behind.
It later turned out that Khune saved a spot kick taken by Justin Shonga from the goals that received extra “sprinkling”. But then, to quell any suspicion that the juju might have been at play, Innocent Maela and Vincent Pule scored for Pirates at the very same end. 

Pirates’ win on Saturday put them a point behind Wits, who have played a game less, at the top of the table. But Chiefs’ derby loss compounded their woes, having won just three of their 11 league matches. Their fight to regain their past glory is likely to face further obstacles if their defence continues to falter and fails to complement an outstanding attack.
“It’s all in our hands,” Khune said. “We’re given an opportunity every season, a lot of new players come in and they have to adjust to playing for this big brand. It’s never easy for them. We as senior players have to help them settle as soon as possible and help them understand the culture of the team and what the team stands for. 

“We’re a team that wins trophies every season. For the past three seasons, we haven’t done that … We just have to be patient and let the new players gel into the team. Things will get back to normal. We know and we aren’t proud of what has happened in the last three seasons. We will try our best to bring the Kaizer Chiefs’ brand where it belongs.”

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