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Tough calls for Ernst!

Kaizer Chiefs head coach, Ernst Middendorp, finds himself between a rock and a hard place! The team’s 2-1 loss at the hands of Maritzburg United, who have seemingly made it their mission to spoil the Naturena-based club’s 50th party this season, has put a lot of pressure on the German mentor and his charges. It could very well become a title blow for Amakhosi, who are looking to halt their five-year trophy drought, unless they have something up their sleeves.  

It was the same Maritzburg that put an abrupt end to Amakhosi’s Telkom Knockout pursuit with a Judas Moseamedi-inspired 2-1 loss, putting Chiefs’ long-awaited silverware aspirations on ice. The famous 2-1 win for Maritzburg was followed by a 1-1 league draw that played a significant role in delaying Chiefs’ celebrations and closing the gap between them and the chasing pack. In essence, Maritzburg took four points from Chiefs and eliminated them from a cup competition. That’s a lot of damage by one team! A win for Amakhosi last Saturday afternoon would have restored their 10-point gap over Mamelodi Sundowns, who have been breathing down their neck for some time now. But not if coach Eric Tinkler’s charges had anything to do with it, as they continue to be Amakhosi’s hoodoo team this campaign. If anything goes south for coach Middendorp’s team, in the league title race, Tinkler’s charges will have to be on the charge sheet! 

As it is always the case when the chips are down, the spotlight has been on Middendorp’s pragmatic approach to the game, with a section of the team’s supporters not impressed with “the coach’s lack of plan B” so much that, even before the game starts, the supporters would bet their last dime on Dumisani Zuma being the first player to come on as a substitute if he doesn’t get a rare start. Despite the team sitting on top of the log since the second round of fixtures, there’s been consistent murmurs of disapproval of the coach’s style of play and tactics from a section of the team’s supporters. Just this past weekend, there was a poster – doing the rounds on social media – carried by a Chiefs supporter with an unpleasant message to the coach. The same coach who has seen the team command more respect and consistently doing well for the better part of the season. The mistake by Daniel Akpeyi, which led to Daylon Claasen’s opening goal, from what looked like a routine catch for the Nigerian international, has also added a lot more pressure on the German mentor with the calls and boos for Itumeleng Khune’s return to goals. Until last weekend, no one doubted Akpeyi anymore, as he’d proved himself to be a reliable replacement, but with all the pressure that comes with challenging for league honours as well as the Nedbank Cup, there’s very little room for mistake and that seems to be the reason for a sudden panic from this section of the team’s supporters.

Now, as Middendorp, what do you do? Do you support Akpeyi and continue with him in goals despite the growing demand for Khune, who has hardly had any meaningful game-time so far this season? Do you give in to the demands of the supporters and hope the change brings good results? If you do that, what message are you sending to Akpeyi, who’s been one of the most consistent and important features in the team’s time of need, resulting in his contract extension? If or when Khune gets back and, God forbids, gets another long-term injury setback because he was rushed back into competitive action at such a crucial time, how do you get Akpeyi back to the right frame of mind? On top of that, Middendorp has the crucial Nedbank Last 16 clash away to Highlands Park and no one knows the importance of winning this trophy for the trophy-starved Amakhosi more than Middendorp. The loss to Maritzburg upset the applecart so much that he can’t even risk playing a ‘second-string’ team against the Lions of the North as a loss in Tembisa would leave the team in disarray, seven days before what promises to be a title-decider of a Soweto Derby! There’s so much for Middendorp to ponder on, not least the issue of three of his key players (Daniel Cardoso, Lebogang Manyama and Reeve Frosler) walking on a tightrope as they go into the much-anticipated cup game one yellow card away from suspension. The reality is that Middendorp’s plans for coach Owen da Gama’s team will be done with one eye on the Soweto Derby, especially with the resurgent form Orlando Pirates have been enjoying under their new mentor, Josef Zinnbauer. 

With the weekend’s loss, there’s no time or even opportunity for Chiefs to prioritise one game over the other. The coach will need all hands on deck and if there ever was a time when he needed his senior players to stand up and be counted, it is now! When you look at Chiefs, their coach included, how many players can claim to have been through this experience in their careers so far, where you’re chasing for the league title and a cup competition at this stage of the campaign? Compared to Sundowns, who know all too well how to handle the league run-in pressure, do Amakhosi have enough in their tank to finish even stronger than they started in the league and go on to make it a double by winning the Nedbank Cup? Only time will tell but, one thing is for sure, the next two matches could be defining fixtures for Amakhosi’s season as a lot rests on them. 





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