Baptism of fire

2008-09-12 00:00

MARITZBURG United face a true test of their ability to compete in the Premier Soccer League when they take on Kaizer Chiefs at Chatsworth Stadium tomorrow.

The newly-promoted team will come up against one of the PSL’s big guns and a potential contender for the title, in an evenly-matched season where the front-runners will probably only become clear around Christmas.

United have already faced one baptism of fire by coming away with an impressive 1-1 draw against last season’s runners-up, Ajax Cape Town, away from home.

A result in the Cape is never easy, though Ajax did look a little out of sorts in their season-opener.

On paper, Chiefs — who threatened to come to grasps with coach Muhsin Ertugral’s quick-passing style last season without quite managing it — and finished sixth, might seem an easier prospect for United. But that does not factor in the history and stature of Chiefs, the crowd, and the glimpses of form shown by Ertugral’s team at the start of the season.

Chiefs will contest next weekend’s MTN 8 final against Mamelodi Sundowns in Durban, and their 4-0 deconstruction of Santos in the quarter-finals served notice of the team’s potential. They were less convincing, though, in the 1-0 semi-final second-leg defeat against Moroka Swallows, and their 2-1 opening league game loss against Thanda Royal Zulu.

Against Thanda, Chiefs had their star striker, Venezuelan Jose Torrealba, suspended and the absence of the PSL’s headline player at the start of the season was noticeable. Torrealba is suspended again tomorrow.

While creative midfielders Siphiwe Tshabalala, David Mathebula, Arthur Zwane and Gert Schalkwyk created chances, Chiefs struggled to finish, but on-form Schalkwyk did manage a spectacular diving header for his fourth goal in four games.

Amakhosi, too, had some problems in central defence, but the return on Thursday of Burundian Valery Nahayo and Ghanaian Jonathan Quartey from international duty will strengthen them in that department. A big plus is the return of left-back Onismor Bhasera, whose terrier-like runs down the left are instrumental in Chiefs’ build-up play.

For United, coach Gordon Igesund has been given some leeway in the past two weeks to work on tactics, gelling an almost entirely new team, and rectifying the mistakes made against Ajax.

United started a month late in their pre-season and Igesund had to mix building a team, physical training and then some tactical training in his first month in charge, as players arrived in dribs and drabs. The results against Ajax were very positive, and the coach is confident ahead of what will be a stern test.

“These last two weeks have been good for us,” Igesund said. “This is really going to be a good Test. We can be confident on the training field, but we’ve got to get it together in the game.

“This will only be our second competitive match and at least nine of the starting players have only played one game together.”

Igesund was producing fighting talk this week, though said he also has a healthy respect for Ertugral’s well-drilled, talent-laden team.

“Whatever happens, you can be sure Kaizer Chiefs will know they have been in a game. If they want to get their first three points, they’re going to have to go to war for them.

“They’re a professional team like we are and they’re our colleagues and they deserve respect, but when we go out on that field we’re going to make a game of it, and play to win.”

Having received his international clearance and recovered from kidney stones this week, new American goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap is set for a baptism of fire against Chiefs. The experience of Bageta Dikilu and Gary Goldstone in central defence will be instrumental in protecting the new keeper. Right-back Tshepo Mashishi will have to be at his best to deal with on-fire left-wing Tshabalala.

Up-front, the strike partnership of Fadlu Davids and exciting Ivorian Bryce Aka could cause problems for Chiefs, while new signing Tico-Tico Bucuane could get a run, either as a starter or from the bench.

With a snooker table-like Chatsworth pitch, and a good crowd, a compelling game of football is on the cards.

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