Kaizer Chiefs are again faltering in the opening weeks despite having a new man at the helm, and Amazulu’s Benni McCarthy will be keen to exploit that.
KAIZER Chiefs struggled during Gavin Hunt’s reign.
They may have gone on a dream run to the Caf Champions League final, and were the only team to beat champions Mamelodi Sundowns on the Brazilians’ road to a fourth consecutive Premiership title, but Chiefs won just seven league matches out of 28 under Hunt, leaving them 11th on the standings at the time of his dismissal.
The situation was so bad that the Amakhosi faithful marched to Chiefs’ Naturena offices demanding more from their team.
Fast-forward to the present day and Chiefs are again faltering in the opening weeks despite having a new man at the helm.
The difference now, though, is that Stuart Baxter is not entirely new to the club, and knows all about the unique pressures and demands that are associated with being in charge of the Soweto giants.
Equally, and possibly more importantly, Baxter has not had his hands tied behind his back like Hunt’s was in relation to Chiefs being given a transfer ban that denied the former coach from signing any new players.
Baxter has had the benefit of an influx of high-quality signings with the most notable being Keagan Dolly from Ligue 1 team Montpellier and Cole Alexander. Hunt would have given his left arm to have such quality at his disposal.
Dolly’s arrival, in particular, had set tongues wagging due to the revival of the famous “CBD” trio consisting of Khama Billiat and Leonardo Castro that in a previous era powered Sundowns to Champions League glory.
But here we are after five games into the new season and Chiefs are even lower-placed in 13th place than when Hunt was dismissed, with just one victory over Baroka FC.
The 4-1 loss to Royal AM was perhaps the most galling. A brace from Victor Letsoalo had put the top-flight newcomers 2-0 ahead, before a Sibusiso Mabiliso own-goal and Mfundo Thikazi added salt to the wounds with a beautifully taken 94th-minute strike.
The performance just about summed up Chiefs in the early weeks of Baxter’s second stint. They have conceded seven goals so far this season – only Golden Arrows (nine) and TS Galaxy (10) have let in more. And Galaxy has already given Owen Da Gama his marching orders.
Upfront Chiefs have not been much better with just three goals scored – two of them coming from defenders Daniel Cardoso and Sifiso Hlanti.
So what’s in store for Baxter?
His task has not been made easier with Serbian striker Samir Nurkovic reportedly sidelined for six weeks following knee surgery, while Castro, Siyabonga Ngezana and Dumisani Zuma all remain on the injured list too.
It certainly seems that a mini-crisis is developing upfront with only Bernard Parker and Lazarous Kambole the only out-and-out forwards remaining, although Lebogang Manyama is also still there.
The immediate challenge is AmaZulu at Kings Park tomorrow, which is one of the toughest assignments on the league calendar, particularly after Usuthu transformed their home ground into a fortress under Benni McCarthy last season.
There were signs of Chiefs’ full potential under Baxter during a thrilling first half against Baroka, but Amakhosi supporters certainly have every right to expect more following last season’s troubles.
The pressure is certainly mounting.
Fortunately for Baxter, his counterpart McCarthy faces similar strain at AmaZulu. Last season’s PSL Coach of the Year is currently a victim of his own short-term success, having transformed AmaZulu from perennial relegation candidates to league contenders and Champions League participants in less than a season.
McCarthy has given AmaZulu’s long-suffering supporters something they never ever imagined: hope and the self-belief that they can mix it with the “big boys” after years in the doldrums.
Last season is, though, being viewed in isolation and not part of a bigger picture of where AmaZulu actually started their journey under chairman Sandile Zungu.
The pressure that was bubbling after an indifferent start to the new season already erupted in a volcanic outburst when McCarthy launched a verbal tirade that only he is capable of in the clash against SuperSport United.
But it seems the outpouring of emotion has done the trick for McCarthy and AmaZulu as his charges have taken some of that fire out on the pitch as they have since overturned a 1-0 home deficit into a 3-2 aggregate victory on the road in their Champions League preliminary round encounter with Malawian outfit Big Bullets, while picking up four points, including a first league win, from their past two Premiership matches.
McCarthy seems to be the coach with the longer rope at this stage of the season, and everyone knows just how much the former Orlando Pirates striker enjoys inflicting misery on the Amakhosi as he often did during his playing days.
If he manages to do so again now at the helm of AmaZulu tomorrow at Kings Park, McCarthy might just be kicking the chair out from under Baxter.