Chippa United coach, Clinton Larsen made some big calls for this game.
In midfield, Tercious Malepe was recalled alongside Donashano Malama, who made just his third start for the Chilli Boys in preference to Boikanyo Komane.
In attack, Lerato Manzini was preferred to namesake Rhulani Manzini, whilst Andile Mbenyane started on the wing ahead of captain, Mark Mayambela, who had to make do with a spot on the bench.
With Daniel Akpeyi cup-tied against his former club, Bruce Bvuma played in goal.
In defence, Teenage Hadebe was back from a concussion and was selected at left back ahead of Siphosakhe Ntiya-Ntiya.
In midfield, Willard Katsande anchored the midfield with Andriamirado “Dax” Andrianarimanana and Kabelo Mahlasela keeping their places after their showing against Leopards.
Hendrick Ekstein was left out of the squad altogether as contract talks continue to stall, whilst Leonardo Castro was back on the bench after injury.
Bernard Parker started in attack alongside talisman, Khama Billiat.
Chiefs Use Diamond
Since Ernst Middendorp took over at Amakhosi, he has used several different formations.
For this game, he went with a midfield diamond. Katsande was at the base, George Maluleka and Dax were the shuttlers on the sides, and Mahlasela was at the apex.
From the onset, Chiefs pressed very high and aggressively.
Chippa generally like to play out from the back, and Middendorp set up his side to win the ball high up the pitch or force Chippa to discard short build-up play and go direct instead.
When facing a team who plays out from the back, there are generally two choices: firstly, mark the best passers and let the least comfortable players have time and space on the ball, trusting that they won’t hurt you.
Or secondly, to aggressively close down whomever you identify as the weak link and press them ruthlessly into mistakes. Chiefs used the second option.
Every time the ball went anywhere near Fredéric Nsabiyumva, Parker and Dax looked to force him into errors.
Malama was also targeted, and both players gave the ball away on several occasions.
With the threat posed by Chiefs if they could win the ball high up, Chippa abandoned passing short from the goalkeeper and Mbongeni Mzimela instead changed to hitting everything long.
Chiefs did a great job in the first half of funnelling Chippa wide, then shifted their diamond across the pitch to give no way for the home side to switch the play.
This led to lots of giveaways and Chiefs had practically nothing to worry about defensively as Kgotso Moleko and Daniel Cardoso played a very proactive game in closing down any long balls or passes towards Manzini.
Rakhale the Key Man
This season, no player in the PSL is more prolific at one-v-one dribbles than Thabo Rakhale.
Chiefs no doubt saw him as the bigger danger to nullify.
He lined up on the right flank initially in this game, but found himself man-marked by Teenage Hadebe, who gave him no space to turn and run with the ball.
For the first 40 minutes, he had almost no impact on proceedings.
As Hadebe left his position to track the skilful winger, Zitha Macheke had space to overlap from right-back.
However, Maluleka did a strong job defensively on him.
Chiefs were not too upset to allow Macheke to raid forward as this exposed Gladwin Shitolo to Billiat in that channel.
The Zimbabwean was playing as a wide striker and gave Shitolo a nightmarish first half.
First, the defender headed a clearance straight to Billiat, who had a shot. Then Shitolo was lucky not to be booked for bringing him down.
Eventually, Dumisani Zuma – on as a straight swap at the top of the diamond for injured Mahlasela – did draw a yellow from the on-loan Orlando Pirates man.
Both Nsabiyumva and Macheke also went into the book as they struggled with being exposed defensively with little help from their midfielders or their wide players defensively.
Despite Chiefs’ excellent first half of pressing and quick forward passes on the transition from Dax and Maluleka, they did not create many chances and when they did go in front, it was as a result of Mzimela’s howler.
Billiat had cut inside from the left and found Zuma’s run behind the defence.
When the goalkeeper mishandled, the substitute put Chiefs 1-0 up.
Chippa had created very little, but their one chance came after Rakhale moved to the left flank and ran onto Kurt Lentjies’ pass. The winger was reluctant to use his left foot and the move led to nothing.
This was a warning of the threat he posed.
Chiefs had moved Maluleka over to the right to cover Ramahlwe Mphahlele when this Chippa change was made.
The one concern was Katsande, who gave the ball away four times in the first 10 minutes and was struggling to make accurate passes in tight spaces.
CHIPPA MAKE DOUBLE CHANGE
At half-time, Chippa made a double change. Nsabiyumva was withdrawn for Tebogo Makobela, who went to right back with Macheke moving centrally.
Ruzaigh Gamildien was also introduced as Malama’s ineffective outing was put to an end. This meant Lentjies moved into a deeper midfield role.
This change immediately made a difference as Makobela raided forward from fullback to good effect.
Any team playing a midfield diamond is susceptible in wide areas where they can find themselves two versus one against a winger and fullback on switches of play.
Chiefs started the second half in a threatening mood as Zuma and Maluleka forced Mzimela into saves. Both came with Parker heavily involved from his wide forward role on the right, whilst Billiat was continuing to be a good weapon on the left as Makobela bombed forward.
Chippa themselves were far more dangerous too.
Not only was Makobela getting some joy joining the attack, but so was Tebogo Tlolane, whilst Lentjies' passing in deeper areas gave Chiefs far more to think about.
One move saw Lentjies find Rakhale between-the-lines, he switched play to Tlolane and it led to Manzini having a decent opening in the box, which he put wide.
Zuma had to bring down the Chippa left back to stop a break too.
This more proactive Chippa setup came as a result of Malepe dropping much deeper to help his central defenders and Rakhale and Mbenyane dribbling more in central positions around Katsande.
CHIEFS WASTEFUL, CHIPPA POUNCE
Chiefs should really have made it 2-0 around the hour mark.
First, Parker curled a shot just wide, and then Dax had a shot blocked.
Zuma also found space on the left as he ran onto Dax’s great pass, but Shitolo cleared well against Parker as the referee waved away penalty claims.
The big opening came when Katsande picked up a loose ball and found Billiat in the box, but he dinked his shot past the post.
Almost immediately, Chippa were level.
Makobela again got forward well on the right, Dax did not deal with him effectively, and an accurate cross was headed in by Mbenyane.
Chiefs had lost shape somewhat with Cardoso out to the left, and Hadebe in the middle.
The Amakhosi left flank was looking very exposed.
After 71 minutes, Clinton Larsen’s men were in front. A long ball from Malepe saw Rakhale pick up the second ball on the vacant Chiefs left flank and delivered a perfect low cross for Lerato Manzini to convert as he got free from Cardoso in the box.
Unlike in other Chiefs matches under Middendorp, there was no formation change. Instead, a straight swap was made at left back as Ntiya-Ntiya replaced Hadebe.
KATSANDE STEPS UP
After a slow start to the game, Katsande made Billiat’s 63rd-minute chance and it was his sheer weight of effort which influenced the equaliser.
The veteran burst up the right, forced Shitolo into an error to regain the ball for Zuma, and the Chiefs man picked out the excellent Dax in the box to level.
Both sides were chasing the winner and not looking to consolidate.
Chiefs had attempts from range from Zuma and Ntiya-Ntiya.
The substitute left back was playing very advanced on that flank and this was keeping Makobela in defensive positions where he could not hurt Chiefs.
The winner came after 84 minutes. Katsande won the first and the second ball off Mzimela’s long kick found Billiat on the left channel, and the star man picked out Parker to score in the box.
Soon after, Billiat killed the tie completely with a sublime long-range curler after Maluleka had teed him up.
Chippa threw on Rhulani Manzini at 3-2 down but it was too late, whilst Chiefs added Reeve Frosler to midfield to see out the game.
This was a deserved win for Chiefs.
They were the better side in the first half albeit without many clear openings created, but they defended excellently from the front and stopped Chippa playing their normal game.
In the second half, the game was more open as Clinton Larsen’s double change made a real difference going forward, but did not stem the tide defensively.
The extra width for the home side saw two right flank crosses converted to go 2-1 in front, but the coach could immediately have added an extra defensive player to protect the lead.
Instead, Chiefs scored three times in final 15 minutes, showing an impressive and determined reaction to falling behind.
Their midfield diamond functioned very well as Dax and Maluleka passed the ball forward excellently.
The difference in the game though was the performance of Chiefs’ front duo, which constantly exposed Chippa’s isolated defensive line with their movement and skill.
After some below-par performances from Leonardo Castro, since the German coach took over, he has finally found the ideal strike duo to work the wide areas the way he wants.
The emergence of Dax has also given Amakhosi greater intensity on and off-the-ball in midfield.