‘Play it again, Sam,’ or so goes the popular quote from the seminal movie Casablanca, even if those exact words are not actually said in the Humphrey Bogart classic.
Sam (ir) was certainly asking for it to be played again on Saturday night in Casablanca, at the Stade Mohammed V, as Kaizer Chiefs pulled off a most unlikely 1-0 win at Wydad Casablanca to assume control of their Caf Champions League semifinal.
Samir Nurkovic, to be precise, gave it the more-recently infamous VAR hand signal, after his goal was flagged offside by an assistant referee so far behind play he would have needed to see around corners to give such a decision with any confidence.
Thankfully, they did play it again, on a video monitor, and the VAR official arrived at the right conclusion, that Nurkovic was clearly onside as he latched onto Njabulo Blom’s pass and smashed it into the back of the net.
VAR has its critics, and rightly so, particularly in the English Premier Leauge, where they seem to have tried to find every way possible to make it unworkable. In situations like this, however, it is a total blessing, a way to eradicate abysmal on-field decisions.
With the VAR system not yet arriving in the Premier Soccer League (it may well be that it is too expensive to arrive for the foreseeable future too), Kaizer Chiefs are the first South African team to be major beneficiaries of its implementation, and it certainly adds a level of creditbility to the Caf Champions League, which as had its share of ‘interesting’ officiating in the past.
Here, it ensured that Chiefs were rewarded for a resilient defensive display, that was a far cry from some of Chiefs’ more disorganised performances under Gavin Hunt.
Even in the Champions League, where Hunt achieved the best results of his short stint, getting them to the semifinals, Chiefs were wobbly at the back on the road, losing 4-0 to Wydad in Casablanca in the group stages, conceding twice to Horoya in Guinea, and almost throwing away their first leg lead in the quarterfinal, as they went down 3-0 to Simba of Tanzania.
In Casablanca on Saturday, Wydad dominated possession but did not exactly create a torrent of opportunities, and when they did threaten the Chiefs goal, Bruce Bvuma was on hand to pull off some fine saves, in what has to go down as his best performance in a Chiefs shirt.
It wasn’t just his saves too, in an empty stadium, and on a stream with no commentary, Bvuma was the loudest voice on the pitch, screaming words of encouragement at his teammates as they held out the home side. No doubt the team benefitted from the words and strategies of new head coach Stuart Baxter and new head of technical and development Molefi Ntseki.
But with Baxter in the stands awaiting his work permit, immense credit also has to go to Arthur Zwane and Dillon Sheppard, who now have three wins out of three in their short time as interim head coaches.
This tie is far from over, of course, and home advantage has been pretty much wiped out by a lack of fans, meaning Wydad should be as dangerous in Johannesburg, in theory, as they were in Casablanca. But Chiefs have given themselves a wonderful chance of finishing the season with a Champions League final. It could even be Baxter’s Chiefs against Pitso’s Al Ahly. What a reunion that would be.