CAPE TOWN - In a modern football world that frowns on instinct and improvisation, and is prone to coaching the natural flair and skill out of gifted players, Ajax Cape Town coach Muhsin Ertugral has gone against the grain and placed his faith in such an intuitive footballer: Ivory Coast striker Yannick Zakri.
Ajax host Kaizer Chiefs at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday afternoon (3pm kickoff) on the last day of the PSL season. They need a victory to ensure they retain their PSL status and avoid having to negotiate a relegation/playoff campaign against NFD clubs Jomo Cosmos and Black Leopards.
The 27-year-old Zakri arrived at Ajax on loan from Mamelodi Sundowns in January this year - and he has proven to be an absolute revelation for the Cape club. It’s not just the vital goals he has scored to keep the club’s hopes alive, but it’s his all-round energy and verve that have caught the eye.
As an experienced, insightful and much-travelled coach, Ertugral often sits on the Fifa Technical Committee; the task of the committee is to analyse matches at international tournaments to highlight the latest trends in the game and to make recommendations on how best to develop and improve the sport.
Ertugral related an anecdote about one of his meetings on the Technical Committee, which served to explain why a spontaneous player like Zakri is important to his philosophy as a football coach.
“We were talking about what type of players the game was taking away from us as coaches,” said Ertugral. “And it was players like Zakri, the players who make football unpredictable.
"Yes, he drives me crazy, sometimes things come off, sometimes they don’t, but we have to allow players like Zakri more freedom, especially in the final third. He can unlock any defensive line with simplicity and with his movement.”
Zakri was given some time off training earlier this week because he was suffering from a runny tummy, but Ertugral was confident the influential Ivorian would be available and ready to give his all against Chiefs tomorrow.
Ajax will, of course, have to play it intelligently. They cannot go into a game against Chiefs all gung-ho and then get caught out on the counter. But, on the other hand, as Ertugral suggests, the fact that they are playing against Chiefs is probably better.
“It would be more difficult to have to face a team that will just sit back,” said the Ajax coach. “Chiefs will play, they will come at us, that is always the way they play, and that’s good for us.”
Because of this, Ajax will be allowed to play too, and it’s during their attacking moments that Zakri will be crucial if Ajax are to emerge victorious. Since his arrival at the Cape club, the swift forward has provided a much-needed outlet for the team.
When under pressure, they are able to give him the ball, and his strength on the ball and authority in possession allow the team to re-organise and get back into shape. And, in attack, Zakri’s presence has also been a galvanising force that has brought out the best in emerging young players like Fagrie Lakay and Grant Margeman.
Destiny calls for Ajax. The choice is simple: do the players want to commit to the task, defeat Chiefs, and pull the club back from the precipice of disaster?
Or do they fail to turn up on Saturday and forever be tainted as the squad that piloted the club to a playoff/relegation predicament for the first time in history? Choose.