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The Question Tinkler Has To Ask Himself…

It’s billed as one of the Top 10 derbies in world football but, truth be told, the Soweto Derby has not lived up to the hype in recent years. There is no one definitive reason for this, though theories do exist. Possibly it’s because the derby is no longer as rare as it used to be, with more competitions and sponsorship money ensuring these two great rivals meet more often than was the case in years gone by. Possibly the coaches these days are not as brave as they used to be and prefer to settle for a point in these games rather than risk losing and coming under pressure from their fans. Maybe it doesn’t mean as much to the players anymore who, because they are so far removed from their fans due to the fame and fortune that comes with being a player at one of these clubs, don’t understand what the derby means to the man in the street anymore. Any one, or more likely a combination of these factors, seems to have thrown water on the fire that raged around this derby in years past. 
 
I began to think we were losing touch with the rest of the footballing world. But then I looked to the EPL, who for so many South African football fans remains the bar by which our own football is measured. I looked to the recent Manchester Derby, where sworn rivals Manchester City took on Manchester United in what should have been a fierce crosstown rivalry. Here is a game that sees two of the biggest clubs in world football go head to head in what many say is the most entertaining league in the world, where some of the highest paid athletes in the world get to play on one of the biggest stages in world football. Yet, for me, that derby must go down as one of the worst I have ever seen! The 0-0 draw was so dull that you might have been excused for wondering if you were watching a training game at times. My conclusion was that maybe we were asking too much from our Soweto Derby. That maybe what we were seeing locally was simply mirroring what is happening around the rest of the world – dull derby games, where players and coaches are happy to indulge in the relative safety of playing to a boring draw, becoming the norm. 
 
Then something beautiful happened in South African football. Orlando Pirates’ coach Eric Tinkler decided to change the norm and challenge what had become acceptable for a Soweto Derby. Whether it was caused by a desperate need to get a good victory to stave off the mounting pressure because of his team’s poor domestic league form, whether it was based on a chink in Kaizer Chiefs’ armour he had discovered and acted on, or whether it was just the result of instilling more passion in his underperforming Buccaneers, Tinkler got Pirates to fire at full throttle! Chiefs, for the most part, had no answer. It took just 90 minutes for Tinkler to resurrect the glory of the Soweto Derby, a fixture that seemed destined for the scrap heap of over-hyped football games the world over. This latest instalment of the Soweto Derby had it all – passion, professionalism, entertainment and, most importantly, goals! Pirates literally put on a master class and, while it takes two teams to put on a show, in this case and in this arena, where thousands of fans had poured in to watch the spectacle, Pirates was definitely the matador and Chiefs the bull. The swashbuckling Buccaneers put on a performance that Chiefs just could not match. And, while the Amakhosi did manage to draw blood once, the three goals from Pirates were what slayed this gold and black giant of South African football. 
 
Going into round two this weekend, a couple of things are clear. Kaizer Chiefs struggle under a high press. They much prefer it when teams sit back and allow them to have the ball in their own half in an attempt to minimise Chiefs ability to counter attack. But it’s clear that, when done properly, Kaizer Chiefs are severely stunted when they are pressed all over the field. It was a tactic that Ajax Cape Town used to defeat them to win the MTN8 final, and it is the tactic that Pirates embarrassed them with last Saturday. Some are claiming that Chiefs should have a Plan B to combat this tactic. Maybe there is some truth in that but great teams around the world have a certain style of play whether they are ahead or behind. It’s just that their levels of excellence are such that they are able to overcome all manner of tactics thrown at them, and so maybe it’s not so much a ‘new way’ that Chiefs need, just an ability to improve the level at which they employ their own unique style when the heat is turned up. Something that Steve Komphela will need to address, though, is Chiefs defensive frailty from dead-ball situations. Much like our national team, Chiefs seem to have the personnel to deal with balls knocked into the box, but don’t seem to have the organisation to stop well-drilled teams from scoring. Depending on how you look at it, Komphela is fortunate in that he now has the opportunity to strike back immediately and get this derby monkey off his back when he comes up against the old enemy this weekend again. A solid win will almost certainly wash away the sins of last weekend. However another result like the 3-1 drubbing, and all the great sentiment from the Amakhosi fans he has built up since the start of the season may quite suddenly disappear. 
 
Not as many lessons are learnt in victory as there are in defeat, but there should be alarm bells going off for Tinkler as well. The immediate question he should be asking himself is: Why can I get my team to perform like this against Kaizer Chiefs, but not against the smaller teams, where he has lost so much ground already this season? The easiest game for coaches in the PSL to prepare for is against Kaizer Chiefs. Coaches know that their players don’t need any more motivation when they come up against South Africa’s glamour side. Opposition players know that a great performance against Chiefs could change their lives. But so often the dizzy heights a team reaches against Kaizer Chiefs in one game are nowhere to be seen the very next when smaller, less glamorous opposition stand before them. It’s called ‘small team mentality’ and it’s why so often the smaller teams in world football are able to slay much larger opponents, and then slip back into the mediocrity that sees them languish in the bottom half of the table. What Tinkler has to avoid is creating a team that only plays in the so-called big games. 
 
There is a huge theme of revenge running through the derby game we will witness this weekend. Retribution for Chiefs could be almost instantaneous and, because of what Pirates achieved last weekend, we are all salivating at the thought of these giants going head to head so soon once again. 
 
To the coaches and the players, you have shown us what you are capable of. You have set the bar. Now, please, go do it all again for us! The world will be watching. Make us proud of our showcase fixture once again! 
 
Shapa
Clint  

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So Long, Cecil Lolo!

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