Kaizer Chiefs stuck with their 3-5-2 formation of recent weeks, but had to make do without several regulars in defence and midfield.
In the back-three, Kgotso Moleko was used on the right of the trio for the second match in a row.
At left wing-back, Happy Mashiane made his Premier Soccer League (PSL) debut in preference to Godfrey Walusimbi, whilst Siphosakhe Ntiya-Ntiya returned from suspension at right wing-back.
With George Maluleka and Lebogang Manyama both injured, Siphelele Ntshangase got a rare start in midfield, whilst Bernard Parker was preferred to Leonardo Castro up front.
On City’s side, there were just two changes from the weekend win in the Nedbank Cup as youngsters Keanu Cupido and Zukile Kewuti kept their places in defence despite Edmilson Dove and Ebrahim Seedat being available.
In midfield, Thabo Nodada was used as a number ten, and with Roland Putsche injured it meant Thato Mokeke and Teko Modise as the double pivot.
Ayanda Patosi was left on the bench and up front, Siphelele Mthembu returned to the XI having been rested in the last match.
Chiefs Stop City's Build-up
From the first whistle, Chiefs had a plan when City goalkeeper Peter Leeuwenburgh had the ball. Khama Billiat and Bernard Parker, playing as wide strikers, each picked up a central defender.
With no numerical advantage, Modise or Mokeke would look to drop deep to create a 3 v 2 situation.
However, Chiefs used man marking on the two deeper Citizen playmakers, with even Katsande willing to push 30 yards into the City half to close down Modise.
The natural step for City was to look for the full-backs in this situation, especially with no wingers selected for Chiefs.
Mashiane pushed very high up to engage Thamsanqa Mkhize, whilst Ntiya-Ntiya closed down Kewuti.
This led to several turnovers when City played short, forcing Leeuwenburgh to instead go long.
With Mthembu going off injured in the first ten minutes, Kermit Erasmus came on and offered little in the way of an aerial target for the goalkeeper.
Ntshangase Gets Chiefs Ticking
Due to injuries, Middendorp selected Ntshangase in his midfield three.
The coach clearly has his doubts about the player’s defensive work and mobility, but his passing range is on a different level to any of his teammates.
No other Chiefs player has set up more shooting chances for Khama Billiat in the PSL this season, despite Ntshangase barely featuring in the last two months.
In this game, every time he got his head up, Billiat would make a run knowing that a pass would arrive.
One such pass saw Billiat take the ball down and draw a corner.
Later, Ntshangase played a lovely pass to set Billiat through on goal, but Leeuwenburgh put the latter off, possibly even with a small foul inside the box.
Ntshangase also set up the first half’s biggest opening as his pass sent Hendrick Ekstein through on goal.
He squared for Billiat, but the Zimbabwean shot straight at the goalkeeper with the goal gaping.
This was probably the fifth good opening for the home side in the first half as Billiat wasted two other good openings from Parker and Mashiane passes, whilst Parker’s shot from Billiat’s fine cross was deflected and saved well.
City Adjust to Chiefs
With City’s right side of Mkhize and Craig Martin getting little joy against the impressive Mashiane and Teenage Hadebe, there were some changes by the coach to try to turn the tide.
The first move was to get Martin into a much narrower, freer position where he could make runs in-behind the Amakhosi defence and open space for Mkhize to get forward.
First, Martin forced Cardoso into an error on City’s left flank and picked out Links for a great chance, but Virgil Vries saved.
Then Mkhize picked out a lovely cross from the byline for Links to have another strike at goal.
Towards the end of the half, Links crossed into the area with Mhkize in the six-yard box. Erasmus had dropped onto the half-way line to receive off Modise and progress the attack, with Nodada moving into the vacated space up front.
City had made good changes to offer more of a threat, but Chiefs looked better structured and City’s issues in trying to build-up would need to be solved.
Amakhosi’s midfield trio were being asked to run 30 yards to close down, and then get back into shape. That did not look like a strategy that was going to last the full 90 minutes.
Castro and Dove Change Dynamic
Both sides made a half-time change. Chiefs took the impressive Parker for Leonardo Castro, whilst City replaced Modise with Edmilson Dove.
This change initially looked to be a move to a back three for the visitors, in order to build-up more easily from the back.
City instead put Dove at left back and moved Kewuti into his more natural central midfield role.
Castro took Parker’s place as a wide forward, so would be required to run the channels – not his strength.
The game changed shape in the second period as City were easily able to keep possession.
Chiefs’ midfield three were unsurprisingly unable to maintain their demanding roles as fatigue set in (Ekstein and Katsande played 120 minutes on Sunday, and Ntshangase 57 minutes) and with the away side enjoying possession so easily, they had little to worry about defensively.
In fact, most of Chiefs’ attacks came from direct play as long passes from the back were aimed towards Castro. As in the first half, Cupido struggled in the air and Chiefs played off the second ball.
To be fair, the young defender was excellent on the ground in intercepting and making tackles.
As the game passed the hour mark, both sides were in desperate need of some fresh legs and some tactical tweaks, but with a tactical change at half-time each and an enforced injury change in the first half too, the coaches had their hands tied.
McCarthy made the first move, taking off a tired Erasmus for Seedat and pushing Dove forward into a defensive winger role as Links went to the right, and Martin joined Nodada centrally as the two most forward players.
This looked a clear sign that the coach was settling for the draw, as both Patosi, Bradley Ralani and Riyaad Norodien remained unused.
For the third time since coming into the side due to Itumeleng Khune’s injury, Vries’made a crucial error to gift the opposition a goal.
In the Sundowns defeat, he let a long pass bounce over his head, against Zesco United he allowed a 35 yard shot to squeeze under his body, and in this game, he dropped Links’ freekick and Dove bundled home the winner.
Even when Kewuti was red carded after 82 minutes, City were not particularly stretched by a now exhausted Chiefs side, with Ryan Moon’s introduction and a switch to a back-four not making any visible difference. City saw out the game comfortably.
City coach McCarthy described this as a smash and grab, and he was correct based on Amakhosi’s numerous clear openings in the first half.
Billiat was the main culprit of missing these openings as Ntshangase pulled the strings in midfield to constantly pick out Chiefs’ main man. By half-time, Chiefs should have gone in two goals to the good on the balance of play, but City improved significantly in the second period, partly down to them shoring up their backline by introducing Dove, switching Cupido and Mngonyama, and later introducing Seedat.
City also defended “with the ball” and stopped Ntshangase’s influence on proceedings.
Meanwhile, some of this change in the tide of the match was down to Chiefs’ fatigue, lack of adjustments during the second period and the removal of the influential Parker.
Vries’ howler proved enough for City to take the three points, and they are now outside bets for the title considering just how many of their squad are performing well and challenging for places.
This victory was achieved without some big players in Taariq Fielies and Roland Putsche, which bodes well for the side going forward.