Kaizer Chiefs coach, Ernst Middendorp, is on the verge of leading the Naturena-based team to the podium to collect the 2019/20 league trophy, if their current winning momentum is anything to go by.
It has been a great week for Amakhosi, celebrating the club’s 50th birthday in style with different activations, but it will be the on-field action that will have lifted the spirits of the multitude of the Khosi Nation more than anything. Two important 3-0 victories against Highlands Park and Cape Town City wrapped up what was an important week in the club’s history, returning to their winning ways and, more importantly, widening the gap between them and the chasing pack. With the games slowly fading away, running your own race and winning as many games as possible is what Amakhosi need. The smell of silverware in almost five years is tantalizing and, still with such a long way to go before the season draws to a close, you can’t blame the Gold and Black masses for being so optimistic of winning the league title this season.
When the club announced Middendorp as the new coach to take over from axed Giovanni Solinas, marking his second stint with the Glamour Boys, halfway through last season, even the staunchest of supporters wouldn’t have bet on the German to be on the summit of the Absa Premiership for the better part of this season. The 61-year-old mentor didn’t cover himself in glory in his last stint at the club, what with his temperament and ‘ugly football’ that didn’t sit well with the vociferous Chiefs supporters. His treatment of a skilful player like the late Scara Ngobese was still fresh in the minds of the supporters who seemingly feared that the German would start from where he had left off. Surprisingly, Middendorp seems a lot calmer this time around, which is a massive improvement from the coach he was when he first arrived at the club. Having now coached five other Absa Premiership teams before his return to Naturena, between 2009 and 2016, it is safe to say Middendorp now understands South African players’ unique talent and personalities much better.
Finishing ninth last season – although he inherited a disjointed bunch of players from his Italian predecessor – in the eyes of many, Chiefs would have had a good season if they were to finish the current campaign in the top four bracket. Very few, if any, would have given them a chance to make such a strong challenge for the league title, especially seeing they didn’t venture that much into the market at the beginning of the season. To think only Samir Nurkovic and Kearyn Baccus are new regulars in Middendorp’s current team, having joined only at the beginning of the campaign, speaks volumes about the team’s transformation. There are a number of similarities between the current and the last Chiefs team to clinch the league title. Aerial strength and dominance, with Mulomowandau Mathoho replicating what Tefu Mashamaite did, contributing with goals from set-plays and marshalling the defence well. Samir Nurkovic and Leonardo Castro are to the current team what Bernard Parker and Kingston Nkhatha were to coach Stuart Baxter’s team, while Lebogang Manyama is doing exactly what Siphiwe Tshabalala was doing, responsible for creativity and finding their front men with well-taken set-pieces. How the German mentor managed to get this right is a feather on his cap. Who would’ve thought that coach Middendorp, out of all coaches, would be the one getting the team so close to a league championship? Currently, Nurkovic and Castro have 16 goals between them, after scoring nine and seven respectively. That’s more goals than Maritzburg United (13), Chippa United (12), Baroka FC (10), AmaZulu FC (11) and Polokwane City (15). The two strikers have scored just two goals less than fourth-placed Bidvest Wits, who have played 13 league games so far, with Mathoho sitting on four!
While it is very important to remember that Amakhosi have not won anything significant yet, apart from the Q-Innovation and Middendorp’s unparalleled three back-to-back Coach of the Month gongs, Amakhosi’s faithful can be forgiven for oozing confidence after collecting more points and scoring more goals in 17 games than they did the whole of last season. After 30 games last season, Chiefs could only manage 39 points from nine wins, 12 draws and nine losses. They scored 33 times, with the opposition finding their net 29 times. Now, with a staggering 13 games still to play, Amakhosi are sitting on 41 points from 13 wins, two draws and losses. They’ve scored three more times than the whole of last season and conceded 16 less! Now, if that’s not championship-winning improvement right there, I don’t know what is! From number nine last season to leading the pack this campaign is something to marvel of Middendorp’s charges.
If there’s one open secret about this Chiefs team, it is that they’re far from a polished side. They’re not playing good and attractive football despite the quality they have at their disposal. They’ve been playing winning football and rode their luck at best, which is what you need sometimes in this game. For a team desperate for silverware, especially in their jubilee season, do you demand good football from your team or take the points and ride the wave all the way to the podium, come May 9, when Amakhosi visit Baroka FC at Peter Mokaba Stadium in their last game of the season? The choice seems pretty obvious, as things stand. Mamelodi Sundowns, SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits are three teams, at the moment, that will have a say as to whether Amakhosi realise their dream or watch the cookie crumble. Only time will tell.