Fallen heavyweights after last season’s ninth-placed finish, Chiefs made it two wins out of two—and took their tally for the campaign to six points—after defeating Black Leopards 1-0 at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday.
Erick Mathoho was the hero, meeting a fine George Maluleka corner in the 12th minute to head beyond keeper Jonas Mendes—stranded after being deceived by the delivery—and give Chiefs a lead that they retained until the conclusion.
The 29-year-old was also the match-winner last weekend, against Highlands Park, and continues to help Chiefs paper over some of the limitations in this team, which still appears like a side in transition.
It was an unforgettable moment for Mathoho, who’s returning to prominence after several seasons ravaged by injury, in which he’s lost his standing as one of the division’s finest centre-backs and dropped out of the international reckoning.
While his goal stole the headlines, the defender also delivered a magnificent defensive display—rediscovering some of his rhythm alongside Daniel Cardoso—and the duo will surely be pivotal this season as Middendorp looks to lift Amakhosi out of the doldrums.
There are other reasons for optimism, Itumeleng Khune should return within the month, bolstering defensive stability, improving Chiefs’ counterattacking threat, offering leadership and organisation, while Khama Billiat, assuming he remains at the club, is the kind of match-winner that few other PSL sides can match.
Lebogang Manyama is another who’s on the comeback trail, while the early signs of new recruit Samir Nurkovic have been promising, even if fans shouldn’t expect fireworks early on.
However, despite the victory, and the reasons for optimism, even the most naive Chiefs fans will be conscious that their side lack the decisiveness and conviction of title favourites Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns.
Against a Leopards side without top scorer Mwape Musonda—as rumours linking him with the exit door continue to swirl—Chiefs created precious little in the way of clear-cut chances.
That a thunderous late effort from Maluleka, which smacked against the crossbar, was the closest they came to adding to their one-goal advantage ought to be a concern for Middendorp, particularly with tougher challenges lying in wait.
Even on this occasion, the German coach will know that it could have been a very different story, with Tshwarelo Bereng spawning a chance to level the match before the half-hour mark.
Daniel Akpeyi, a late replacement for Bruce Bvuma, was also forced to save late from a Joseph Mhlongo free kick,
Chiefs weren’t flattered by the victory, but it cannot entirely mask a lack of fluidity and a distinct absence of cohesion among the forward line.
It remains to be seen whether the likes of Leonardo Castro, replaced at the break, new boy Lazarous Kambole, or substitutes Bernard Parker and Dumisani Zuma can still consistently put the division’s smaller teams to bed, let alone trouble the big boys.
Middendorp now has a fortnight to refine his side’s offensive output while welcoming back some of the absentees, while praise in the immediate aftermath of the victory must go to Mathoho.
Mathoho demonstrating why they call him 'Tower' with that terrific tackle!— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 5, 2014
Crucially, the stopper has the experience and know-how of having been at the pinnacle of the South African game, having played a key role in the double-winning teams of 2013 and 2015.
After 19 games across the last two seasons, however, he’s become something of a forgotten man of this Chiefs team…and how he has been missed!
While the returns of Khune and Billiat have stolen much of the attention, could it be that the returning Mathoho, a defensive stalwart and now a match-winner, could prove to be as important as either as Chiefs look to return among the title contenders?