Komphela: Chiefs, Pirates still in title race

Head coach Steve Komphela of Kaizer Chiefs Aubrey Kgakatsi/BackpagePix

Kaizer Chiefs coach Steve Komphela has warned Mamelodi Sundowns that both his side and bitter rivals Orlando Pirates remain in the championship hunt, with a third of the Absa Premiership season to go.

Chiefs trail leaders Sundowns by seven points after 20 games, while Pirates are five points back from the Brazilians, but have played a game more.

"It will be tight and competitive," Komphela told reporters. "As much as we are looking at ourselves as Kaizer Chiefs, and at Mamelodi Sundowns, we should not forget our neighbours [Orlando Pirates], they are also in the mix and you have to factor them in.

"It's good for the Absa Premiership and for the game in South Africa, it only makes the brand in this country more exciting and more appetising.

"It is not going to be easy, but we have to give it a go. But it's not over. We get three points and maybe Sundowns drop three, the gap is four [points].

"Anxiety builds with nine games to go. There is no room for mistakes."

Chiefs must still play Pirates this season on March 3, but have already met Sundowns twice, taking four points off the Brazilians, but with no further opportunities to make up ground in head-to-head meetings.

January arrivals such as Leonardo Castro, from Sundowns, and Siphelele Ntshangase from Baroka FC have added the kind of depth to the squad that the coach had perhaps not previously enjoyed during his near three-year tenure at the team that has yet to yield a trophy.

Komphela added: "We have a good enough squad, the fact that you had [defender] Siya Ngezana not even in the squad [for Sunday's 3-0 win over Lamontville Golden Arrows]. You had one of our best defenders [Erick] Mathoho on the bench, and the ones that are in there [on the pitch] are doing justice.

"And you still have others, [Bongi] Jayiya, [Dumisani] Zuma not out there. It is good to have a squad like that."

One of the keys to the title run-in for Chiefs will be getting Colombian forward Castro and Ntshangase up to full match fitness as soon as possible. Both played little in the first half of the campaign and Komphela admits that they are a work in progress.

"Castro spent quite a bit of time not playing at his previous club, so he is getting there. Match fitness is something that is very difficult, but you have to build players towards that," Komphela adds.

"The same with Ntshangase, where he was he had not been playing, we knew when we studied them that the possibilities of finishing the matches where very slim, but we did have a plan to say, 'Ok, if they don't go the distance, then what?' We had our ducks in a row.

"Those are processes as a coach you have manage. We do engage the players, we say, 'Leo, how many minutes do you think you can give us?' He might say, 'Coach, I can give you a good 45 or 50'. You have to trust the player's feedback.

"I hope soon they will play 90 minutes without a hiccup, but that it will happen just instantly is not possible."

Another key cog in Chiefs' title hopes is goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, undeniably the country's number one gloveman, who put in a Man of the Match display as the side ousted Golden Arrows from the Nedbank Cup.

"The quality that he has got, when he pulls saves, is the essence of goalkeepers," Komphela said. "If you have a top-quality keeper at the back then you have the confidence to defend.

"Football is not a game where you would be perfectly correct through 90 minutes, but when you commit that error you want someone at the back who helps you and keeps you in the game. He does that consistently."

Komphela also praised Khune's willingness to fight for the cause after he played the match against Abafana Bes'thende despite feeling ill, and not for the first time either.

"We were having a chat in the dressing room and he said, 'You know, I think I must always have this runny tummy, because each time I have a runny tummy, I get Man of the Match'.

"He was reminding me of games he played like that for Bafana Bafana and whatnot. He played with an upset stomach, so I said to him, 'My man, I'm going to pray that you stay like that in matches so that you can pull Man of the Match!'

"It's good that an athlete commits to the cause, plays very well, saves and makes their team win, when they are still not at the top of their physical condition."

Next up for Chiefs is a crunch home fixture against Cape Town City on Saturday, another side with the potential to be champions this season, though their chances have diminished in recent weeks.