JOHANNESBURG - Having endured a disastrous end to their 2018/19 domestic season after losing to second division side TS Galaxy in the final of the Nedbank Cup and finishing ninth in the Premiership, few would have predicted that Kaizer Chiefs could be on the verge of returning to the pinnacle of South African football.
With eight games left before the curtain falls on the current season, Chiefs are at the summit of the Premiership standings with 48 points, four ahead of defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns, who have a game in hand.
While their lead is far from secure, Chiefs’ return to form still deserves plaudits considering that the man at the helm is the very same person whose arrival late in 2018 was met with jeers following an underwhelming first stint at the club.
Coach Ernst Middendorp is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially after his altercation with supporters during his first stint with the club from 2005-2007.
However, there’s a newly invigorated Middendorp at Chiefs this season who’s answering what is asked, while he’s not intrigued when he’s provoked by his colleagues.
Remember how Sundowns’ Pitso Mosimane accused Chiefs of benefiting from bad decisions that were made by referees during the early stages of the season? Instead of fighting back, Middendorp simply kept quiet and distanced himself from any unnecessary debates.
Having led like a true mentor, Chiefs’ players have adopted a number of positive aspects from their coach, focusing on the good and improving where they can.
The capture of Samir Nurkovic has proven to be a master stroke for Chiefs. Picture: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix
The arrival of Serbian striker Samir Nurkovic has also been a masterstroke by the club, considering that he’s scored 11 league goals, four shy of top scorer Gabadinho Mhango of Orlando Pirates.
Not only has Nurkovic enjoyed scoring goals but he’s also brought the best out of striking partner Leonardo Castro, who has eight goals in 19 games.
Granted, Chiefs have not had too many problems up front as they have scored 40 league goals so far, but it’s been equally pleasing that the defensive contingent has only been breached 17 times.
A lot of credit for that plus 23 goal difference is because goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi proved he deserves to don the No 1 jersey in place of long-time player and captain Itumeleng Khune, who has battled with injuries in the last two seasons.
When Akpeyi joined Chiefs in January 2019, his move was not entirely welcomed by most of the Amakhosi faithful, who complained that he hadn’t done enough at Chippa United to land a dream move to one of the biggest clubs in the country.
But instead of sulking and moaning, the Nigerian No 1 took the criticism on the chin and has shone between the sticks for Chiefs this season.
Remember how he shut up his detractors by bagging the Man of the Match award when Amakhosi completed a league double over Pirates?
As the old mantra goes, “fortune always favours the bold”, right?
So, that Middendorp hasn’t been afraid to make tough decisions and his players have also played as a unit, is probably because everyone has been pulling their weight, and because of that, they are the team everyone is chasing in the title race this season.