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The Soweto derby rarely needs an extra injection of excitement to get a nation frothing at the mouth, bug-eyed with anticipation. Yet there is no doubt this afternoon’s version of the Orlando Pirates versus Kaizer Chiefs extravaganza comes with an extra dose of hot sauce.
Just the three points separates Amakhosi and the Buccaneers at the top of the Absa Premiership, meaning as well as your standard bragging rights, plenty of title momentum also comes with victory this afternoon at Soccer City (kick-off 3.30pm).
For leaders Chiefs, desperate to capture a first league title since 2005, there is a mouth-watering opportunity to extend their lead over the Buccaneers to six points, a distance that even coach Stuart Baxter had to admit, would give Chiefs a psychological shot-in-the-arm.
“They are three valuable points between teams competing with aspirations to win the league, but in the long term they will not decide (the title),” said Baxter.
“But mentally, absolutely, it gives you impetus.”
Amakhosi have mostly seemed desperate to keep a lid on any early title declarations, and it is impossible to blame them. Too often in recent times they have been in commanding early league positions, only to collapse later in the season like a stumbling drunk.
Midfielder Reneilwe Letsholonyane even tried to play down the added spice that comes with today’s derby.
“Derbies are derbies, it is always a big game,” he said playing with a straighter bat than Faf du Plessis.
“It is three points, the same as three points against Ajax or any other team. For us it is a normal game.
“We are trying to win each game as it comes and hopefully by the end of the season we can be champions.”
Pirates players, by contrast, perhaps as befits the chasing side, carried a little more pomp and circumstance in their delivery ahead of today’s game.
It is Chiefs who had the better midweek result, beating Ajax Cape Town 3-0, while Pirates could only play out a goalless draw at Chippa United. Then again, the Buccaneers were missing several of their regular players, a factor Thulasizwe Mbuyane believes could play a part today.
“I think we have more players rested,” said Mbuyane.
“Hopefully we can go into the game fresher. We are looking forward to doing well and making our supporters happy. We let them down on Wednesday and hopefully we will be victorious [today].
“Looking at Chiefs, they have quality players, but I still believe we are much stronger.”
Even when pushed on a scoreline, Mbuyane was forthcoming : “Pirates 2, Chiefs 0,” he said. “Because I know I am going to score and ‘Ntofo’ (Collins Mbesuma) might score also.”
Pirates can certainly draw on plenty of title-winning experience, aiming for a third league crown in a row. One of their newer recruits, winger Sifiso Myeni, explained that the team sat down after the Chippa draw and resolved to win all three of their games leading into the Christmas break.
“After the 90 minutes (against Chippa) we were disappointed,” said Myeni, who missed that game through suspension. “We went to the hotel to regroup and spoke as a team about what we did was not good. Chiefs are now leading us by three points, when we had them leading only by one. Now going into the derby we have to make sure we get the three points and go into the break on top. We told ourselves we want nine points from out last three games.”
Pirates players might be boisterous, but in reality, this looks a derby of extremely fine margins that is almost impossible to call. Chiefs have the league’s best attacking record, with 27 goals in 13 games so far, Bernard Parker and Lehlohonolo Majoro storming the scoring charts.
But then again, the Buccaneers have the league’s best defence, conceding just seven all season, and can welcome Siyabonga Sangweni back from suspension this afternoon. The Buccaneers have been pretty powerful in front of goal of late, former Chiefs striker Collins Mbesuma’s form possibly giving him the nod ahead of Benni McCarthy.
But Chiefs’ defence, despite an injury to Bafana defender Morgan Gould, has been fairly solid itself.
“I think it will be a high- scoring game,” said Pirates coach Roger De Sa. “Both teams play attacking games and will have a go. If there are no goals it will be because both goalkeepers are very good.”
Baxter, meanwhile, believes the winner will come from the side that can take a step back from the emotion of the occasion.
“Pirates are a good team with a good coach, they work very hard on their game and have improved,” he said.
“The result against Chippa will have no bearing at all. On the day it will be about who can peel away the drama and the emotions and produce a performance; about who can deal with any setbacks and maximise their opportunities.”