Kaizer Chiefs sitting pretty at the top of the Premiership standings
If you had said at the start of the season that Kaizer Chiefs would hold a seven-point lead at the midway point of the campaign and have a single defeat from their 14 matches‚ many might have thought you were being fanciful.
But the first five months of the Absa Premiership season could barely have gone better for the AmaKhosi‚ who could only manage a ninth-place finish in the last campaign and looked well short of being title contenders.
It is now arguably their title to lose‚ though Mamelodi Sundowns hover ominously behind them and are known for their strong finishes in the closing months of the season.
But the numbers stack up impressively for coach Ernst Middendorp‚ who has seen his side win 11 of their 14 league matches‚ with two draws.
The only defeat was a surprise 1-0 reversal at home to Polokwane City in September – the same Limpopo side who have subsequently lost their last 10 matches in a row.
Mixed in that run Chiefs have beaten Sundowns (2-0) and also ended their long five-year drought against Orlando Pirates (3-2).
They have been hugely impressive and top the scoring charts with 29 goals‚ more than two per game on average. Pirates (22) are the next highest scorers.
Their attack had looked so blunt last season‚ but has improved markedly‚ with the catalyst being the arrival of the brilliant Serbian forward Samir Nurkovic.
He may have only scored eight of their goals‚ though that is a very healthy return‚ but he has also claimed an impressive list of assists and adds so much more dynamism to their front-line.
He again provided a perfect cross for Lebo Manyama to score as Chiefs ended the year with a 1-1 draw at Maritzburg United on Sunday.
Nurkovic’s arrival has transformed the team and they have also been miserly on defence‚ even if they are prone to the odd high-profile error.
Centre-back Daniel Cardoso has had some moments to forget and there also has been a hint of good fortune for Chiefs with some referee decisions this campaign.
Middendorp will tell you that things even out over the season‚ but there has perhaps been little evidence of that yet
The team has seemingly been getting better as the season goes on as well‚ with four of their five first wins by single goal margins.
Since then‚ five of the next six wins have been by two goals or more‚ which suggests they are now more able to kill off games.
But there are also signs that they can be rattled if teams choose to attack them.
They were well beaten by Maritzburg in a Telkom Knockout semifinal in late November‚ though the score was only 2-1.
They were also perhaps fortunate to come away with a 1-1 draw against the same opposition this past weekend‚ with United missing a penalty.
Captain Willard Katsande‚ usually so reliable‚ made two high-profile errors in that game that could have cost the side a point.
But before fingers are pointed too harshly in his direction‚ Chiefs have not lost any of the 12 games he has played in during the first half of the campaign.
The rise of Daniel Akpeyi as a credible number one has also been huge for Middendorp with Itumeleng Khune seemingly unable to stay fit‚ and the Nigeria international has been impressive.
Kearyn Baccus has also proved a good acquisition in midfield‚ but Zambian forward Lazarous Kambole and Ghanaian midfielder James Kotei have yet to justify their places in the squad.
To be fair to Kotei he has not been used in a match-day squad since the opening day of the campaign and even then was only on the bench.
Chiefs face a difficult programme in January with six matches in 21 days‚ and start away at SuperSport United on January 4.
They then tackle Highlands Park (January 8) and Cape Town City (January 12)‚ both at home‚ before an away trip to Black Leopards (January 18) and a home game with BidVest Wits (January 21).
Their final game of the month is away at Lamontville Golden Arrows (January 25).