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Will Baxter’s 100th league game with Chiefs be a milestone or a millstone?

Arthur Zwane, Dillon Sheppard and Stuart Baxter, coach of Kaizer Chiefs during the DStv Premiership 2021/22 football match between Kaizer Chiefs and Stellenbosch at Soccer City, Johannesburg recently. Picture: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix

For many years now, the Soweto derby has held its own among world football’s most acclaimed derbies and Stuart Baxter has come under increased scrutiny after a shock defeat against Stellenbosch FC.

SATURDAY’S eagerly anticipated Soweto derby will mark Stuart Baxter’s 100th league match in charge of Kaizer Chiefs during his two stints as manager of the most successful club in South African football history.

Depending on the outcome of the match, the 100th league match milestone may not necessarily mark a memorable day in the life of the English-born gaffer. The milestone will make way for a millstone around Baxter’s neck in the event of defeat. He has come under increased scrutiny over the past few days after a shock defeat against Stellenbosch FC.

Last month Chiefs suffered back-to-back defeats against Mamelodi Sundowns and Royal AM. It raised the ire of Chiefs supporters who by that time had already come to the end of their tether.

Baxter, despite his stellar achievements at Chiefs during his first spell as manager (2012-2015), had himself become a millstone around their necks. A ‘should he stay or should he go’ storm raged on social media for several days afterwards.

It all became quieter later when Baxter masterminded back-to-back wins against SuperSport United and Chippa United, until the team’s demise at the derby venue on Tuesday.

Baxter played down the defeat and felt the outcome would not affect the performance on Saturday.

“It does not affect the derby at all. I think this result ‒ win, lose or a draw, the derby has its own life,” said Baxter. “That is my experience of the derbies. We have a couple of days to recuperate and refresh and put together a game plan.”

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Mandla Ncikazi, Pirates’ co-coach, has expressed similar sentiments even though his charges managed a win in their ‘warm-up’ encounter against the visiting Sekhukhune United on Tuesday. The morale-boosting win, coming on the eve of the derby, saw Pirates snap a winless run of four league matches.

Ncikazi pointed out that history counts for nothing on derby day. This thought could have been prompted by Chiefs’ superior win-loss ratio over Pirates since the inception of the Soweto derby in 1970.

“As I said, this (derby) match, there is no form. There is no history, it will depend on what happens on the day of the match.

“I am hoping and praying that Pirates are playing with confidence and get a result against a very formidable side of Kaizer Chiefs.”

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Unlike Ncikazi, Baxter would hope that history will play a part and inspire his charges to greater heights at the FNB Stadium tomorrow.

Just over a decade ago, to the day, the rebuilt FNB Stadium hosted the first league Soweto derby after the completion of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Around 90,000 spectators crammed into the stadium to see Chiefs win 3-1. It was a dreadful day for Pirates fans, from start to finish, after their midfielder Daine Klate scored an early own goal.

Three weeks later, FNB Stadium hosted another Soweto derby. This time it was the Telkom Knockout Cup final which Chiefs won 3-0.

Although Baxter did not contribute to the history of these two encounters, he certainly played his part with his first Soweto derby experience in 2014 at the FNB Stadium.

It was a scorching hot day and Chiefs were at their best and ran out comfortable 2-0 winners after two second-half goals. The 2-0 Soweto derby result was one of the highlights of the season in which Chiefs were runaway league winners and marked their height of excellence under Baxter.

History may not be a bad tool to motivate the team. A few days ago, Rulani Mokwena, Sundowns co-coach, used history to fire up his team during a half-time talk. He invoked the spirit of the 1976 uprising and mentioned the inspirational Hector Pieterson. It seemed the history segment played a role in Sundowns’ eventual win in the MTN8 cup final penalty shoot-out.

Baxter would not have to go too far back to lean on history during pep talks ahead of tomorrow’s match which will be the sixth Soweto derby behind closed doors. He could make it fairly personal and point out that one of the players in the current squad, defender Daniel Cardoso, played a match-winning role in the Soweto derby of November 9, 2019, when Chiefs won 3-2.

The match turned out to be a personal triumph for Cardoso who scored a brace in the match. He scored one of two first-half goals to give Chiefs a 2-0 lead. Pirates stormed back in the match to level matters before Cardoso stepped up to the ‘spot’ eight minutes from the end to score the matchwinner.

For Baxter, defeat is a serious matter and impacts directly on the team’s dignity. He once said: “In football, you don’t only lose three points, the team’s dignity is also on the line.”

For many years now, the Soweto derby has held its own among world football’s most acclaimed derbies, such as the Argentinian clash between Boca Juniors and River Plate, Spain’s Real Madrid against Barcelona and Turkey’s Fenerbahçe versus Galatasaray.

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