Stuart Baxter ended Kaizer Chiefs’ seven-year irritation when he won them the Absa Premiership title last season, and now, as they start their African Champions League campaign tonight, he’ll similarly be expected to bring them closer to the promised land.
While their rivals Orlando Pirates boast a Champions League winners’ medal, a silver medal achieved last year and also made the semi-finals in 2006, Chiefs can be considered novices in the competition, albeit that they were the very first South African team to take part in it after readmission.
Amakhosi take on Black Africa of Namibia in the preliminary round of the Champions League tonight (FNB Stadium, 8.15), the first time in nine years that Chiefs partake in continental club competitions.
They were barred by the Confederation of African Football in 2005 after they withdrew from the Confederation Cup that year, but it’s not as though Chiefs were eligible anyway, as they had failed to annex the Absa Premiership until Baxter changed that last year.
Having seen Pirates reach the final last year, which they lost to Al-Ahly, Chiefs’ fans will expect Baxter to lead them at least into the group phase of a competition notorious for its taxing nature on South African teams, and poor refereeing standards.
It’s no less than what Baxter, who traversed the continent as Bafana Bafana coach from 2004 to late 2005, expects. “Given my experience with Bafana, I know exactly what to expect,” the Briton told The Star. “I saw how Pirates and SuperSport United went about last year. I’m aware that this road is fraught with banana skins – it’s like a minefield. There are a lot of things you don’t have control over.”
Baxter has had numerous conversations with Roger de Sa, the former Pirates’ coach who led them to last year’s final, and is aware it wasn’t easy to get there.
“We promise to give our best, like Pirates did. Pirates gave their best but in one game (away to TP Mazembe) they had two penalties given against them. Fortunately, both were saved, but had it not been the case, they may not have made it. Roger has told me a lot of such strange stories. But we have to concentrate on the things we can control and not be affected by those outside the normal football field.”
Baxter conceded that Chiefs go into their clash with Namibian champions Black Africa with minimal information, but added that his team would focus on their own strength rather than worry about the opposition.
“We have little intelligence on Black Africa – we go in there blindly. But I guess in such games you have to concentrate on yourself. Expectations are that we should do well in this competition and we’ll do our best to meet those expectations.”
Chiefs fans will indeed expect nothing but victory against Black Africa, who hail from Katutura on the outskirts of Windhoek. They should be considered underdogs in this tie owing to the fact that previous appearances in continental club football – back in the mid-90s – ended in elimination from the preliminary stages.
Chiefs, on the other hand, go into this match on the back of an amazing run of form which has seen them win nine consecutive games to establish an 11-point lead at the top of the Premiership.
“We need to forget about that and look at this as a new challenge,” Baxter said. “We’ve come through three difficult games this year and got nine points. The boys are up to this challenge.”
Thus a tough schedule involving three competitions – with the Nedbank Cup still to come – begins for Chiefs, who travel to Maritzburg United on Tuesday. “It’s massive. But the key will be to work on the recuperation of players and know how to rotate the squad. We will have to be battle-wary,” added Baxter. - Saturday Star