Johannesburg – It will be a disaster for Mamelodi Sundowns if they do not win the Premier League title, Kaizer Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter said after his team's 1-1 draw with Free State Stars on Wednesday.
But for most pundits – and that included the shocked army of Amakhosi supporters at the Peter Mokaba Stadium – the disaster at hand was firmly in Chiefs' court as their declining hopes of retaining the PSL championship appeared in tatters.
Chiefs now find themselves trailing log leaders Mamelodi Sundowns by four points with two fixtures remaining.
If Sundowns beat SuperSport United in the Pretoria derby on Tuesday, the championship race will be abruptly over, with the team known as the Brazilians ending a seven-year Premier League title drought.
Baxter's pained declaration of a possible Sundowns' disaster seemed no more than the desperate gasp of air from a drowning man.
“Certainly the draw against Stars has come as a bitter blow,” said the Chiefs' coach.
“We believed before the game that we were still in the title race with a fighting chance and we had the game won until the dying minutes.
“A victory in Polokwane would have meant we would have been placed only two points behind Sundowns in the title race.
“That would have been a challenging position and left us with realistic hope and optimism. We are not giving up now because stranger things have happened in soccer and we'll do whatever we can.”
If Sundowns win either of their last two matches against SuperSport or Maritzburg United, they will win the league, no matter how Chiefs fare against Tuks and AmaZulu.
The draw against Stars marked the continuation of what has been a striking fall from grace of the Soweto glamour side, who a month ago appeared to have a second successive championship in their grasp with a clear-cut six point advantage in the title race.
Chiefs' humbling decline has been heightened by successive defeats and the elimination from both Caf's Champions League and Confederation Cup in April, after proclaiming high hopes of making an impact in African soccer this year.
The Amakhosi, however, never looked like championship material in what was an evenly-contested game against battling Stars, with the share of the spoils a just outcome after both sides ironically scored late in the proceedings through substitutes who had only briefly been on the pitch.
It was Chiefs who finally opened the score with a headed goal from Katlego Mphela in the 69th minute after the ball had bounced off the crossbar from an initial headed attempt.
There was also an element of bad luck for Stars in conceding the goal, with goalkeeper Bruce Mtshali spreadeagled on the turf after making a save in the face of a packed goalmouth.
The injured Mtshali struggled to his feet when the referee appeared on the verge of halting play and Mphela took advantage of the disarray in the Free State side's defence.
To Stars' credit, they never stopped striving for an equaliser and they gained just reward in the 84th minute when a determined-running Thabo Moloi took advantage of successive defensive errors to score from close range.
Stars still remain second from bottom in the log but the draw should go a long way in enabling them to avoid automatic relegation.
As for Chiefs, the tricky Nedbank Cup semi-final against Wits on Saturday provides a chance of salvaging something from a season that promised so much, but could end in bitter disappointment. – Sapa