SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 01: Orlando Pirates head coach Erick Tinkler during the Absa Premiership match between Orlando Pirates and Free State Stars at Orlando Stadium on March 01, 2014 in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images)

Eric Tinkler has talked up Orlando Pirates’ title chances, after the Buccaneers edged closer to Kaizer Chiefs with a 2-0 win over Free State Stars on Saturday evening.

“I have said before that I firmly believe we are still title contenders,” said Tinkler immediately after the Stars game, Thabo Matlaba and Mpho Makola’s second half goals leaving Pirates 13 points behind Chiefs, with two games in hand.

Tinkler believes Chiefs’ African Champions League run could put pressure on the league’s current front-runners, just as it disrupted Pirates’ title chances last season.

“Mathematically it (winning the league) is entirely possible, there are a lot of games to go. We have experienced what it is like to play in the Champions League and the pressure it puts on you. Chiefs will start finding it difficult and will start dropping points, it is only natural,” said Tinkler.

“You can (also) see what happened with Wits beating Sundowns. If the top teams keep taking points off each other it also increases our chances. Our objective at the start of the season was to win the league and that will continue until it is not possible any more.”

The Stars match was probably Tinkler’s last as caretaker coach, with Vladimir Vermezovic – in the stands at Orlando Stadium on the weekend – expected to get his work permit ahead of Saturday’s trip to Mbombela to play the University of Pretoria.

And Tinkler, who will continue as an assistant to Vermezovic, was happy to hand over the reins on a good run of form, with victory in the Nedbank Cup followed by league wins over Mamelodi Sundowns and Stars.

“Coming in as caretaker coach, you want to ensure that the team continues on the winning path,” said Tinkler.

“So that when the new coach steps in, the transition is made a lot easier. As head coach you don’t want to be coming in to a team low on morale. So winning tonight and seeing the team getting better day by day, and the confidence coming back, is all positive.

“I am proud of what the boys have done, and the technical team … but nothing changes, we carry on. The new head coach comes in and will be working with us, we will be giving our advice on what we think needs to be done.”

Pirates dominated Saturday’s match pretty much from the start against Stars, who looked every inch a side battling relegation.

Themba Sithole’s side sat back and soaked up the pressure in the first half, restricting Pirates mostly to long range efforts, goalkeeper Tshepo Motsoeneng only forced to make two saves of note, from Khethokwakhe Masuku and Helder Pelembe.

“I think in the first half we played quite well, it was the way we planned the game,” said Sithole.

“We wanted to close the game down … in the first half and try and venture forward more in the second half. The only disappointment is the loss of concentration early in the second half.”

Pirates struck twice in the first 10 minutes of the second half, adhering to Tinkler’s request to stretch the Stars defence more. Matlaba ran onto Makola’s pass, and slipped a fine finish into the far corner, before Makola burst clear of the Stars defence, and beat Motsoeneng with some ease.

Matlaba and Makola, of course, made a name for themselves at Stars, but ironically here they were deepening the crisis at their former club.

“Seeing these boys playing well, I don’t feel pain,” said Sithole, however.

“I love to see them play at clubs where there are better challenges, seeing them play for Bafana, that is what I want. It is good when we produce players like we saw today.”

The fact remains, however, that if some of Ea Lla Koto’s current players do not step up in the coming months, the Free State side could be playing first division football next season. - The Star