Kaleem Haitham in action against Eastbourne United (Picture: Neil Holmes)
The goals might have dried up somewhat for free-scoring City in recent weeks but it’s that time in the club’s tilt for the title when points matter most and Kaleem Haitham’s second half strike proved enough as Chichester won 1-0 at home for a second week running to maintain their lead at the top of the league.
Chi came into the match on the back of a run of fifteen league games unbeaten, including a 3-0 victory away at Eastbourne United on a day when the scoreline flattered the side with promotion credentials.
The East Sussex outfit had a dreadful start to the season, picking up only five points before Christmas. Things have changed with the appointment of Arron Hopkinson as manager and United, celebrating their 125th anniversary next season, have drawn with Broadbridge Heath and beaten Lingfield, East Preston, Shoreham and Saltdean since the turn of the year in their bid for SCFL premier division survival.
City bosses Miles Rutherford and Graeme Gee named the same starting XI that beat Uckfield last time out and there were echoes of that match as the home side ground out another win, albeit without the drama of a late, late winner in time added on.
The first chance of a game that looked anything but one between top and bottom sides in the league fell to Eastbourne when Dylan Gifford dragged a shot wide.
George Way then spurned a glorious opportunity at the other end following a cross from Haitham.
United’s Sam Schaaf, brimming with confidence thanks to four goals in the last four matches, next tried an audacious lob but it lifted over Ryan Young’s crossbar.
Matt Axell, who gifted Schaaf this chance when he was caught on the ball, redeemed himself with a perfectly timed tackle on the No.9 in the box before Terrell Lewis got a toe in to deflect a shot for a corner. Gifford whipped this in but Tyler O’Callaghan glanced his header wide.
Josh Clack might have given Chi the lead on 28 minutes before Haitham rattled the frame of the goal after good work from Connor Cody.
Other chances came and went for the hosts – Way fired off target, Gicu Iordache struck one into the side-netting and had another blocked and Dave Herbert forced a save out of Jordan Hawkins.
The deadlock was broken just after the interval when Iordache fed Clack who picked out Haitham with a precision ball that the Chi winger guided beyond Hawkins.
An equaliser might have come in a frantic three minute spell but Young did well to deny first Schaaf with a save low down to his right and then Chris Cumming-Bart, before Schaaf went close again.
Rutherford and Gee rang the changes. Ellis Martin replaced Herbert to allow Rob Hutchings to move up front and later introduced Rory Biggs for Haitham and Sam Ndlovu for Way.
February player of the month Hutchings wasn’t far off in the 65th minute before Ryan Peake and Clack both had shots smothered by defenders in a goal mouth scramble.
Clack then couldn’t quite get the kind of connection he wanted with fifteen minutes to go as the home side pressed for a second goal.
Referee Nick Blogg waved away Eastbourne protests for a penalty and had another incident to deal with late on before Axell fizzed a shot over the bar with the last chance of the game.
City’s nearest title rivals Newhaven also won 1-0 so the gap between first and second place remains nine points, although the Dockers could reduce this when they play their game in hand mid-week at Uckfield.
Next up for Chi is an away trip to Lancing on Saturday 9th March (Kick Off 3pm).
Chichester – Young, Lewis, Hutchings, Axell, Peake, Cody, Clack, Way, Iordache, Herbert, Haitham. Subs: Biggs, Martin, Ndlovu, Potter, Callnon
• This was Chichester’s fourth 1-0 win of the season – Chi beat Uckfield 1-0 both home and away, with Ellis Martin’s late penalty the only goal in the league game at Horsham YMCA in December
• Kaleem Haitham’s winner against Eastbourne United was City’s 80th league goal of the campaign
• Chi have now scored 107 league and cup goals this season
• Chichester have kept a total of 18 clean sheets in 43 games in all competitions with 14 clean sheets so far in 30 premier division games
• Chi have scored an average of 2.67 goals a game in the league this season
• Of the 16 league games at home Chichester have won 12, drawn 3 and lost one, scoring 46 goals
• City face Lancing, Little Common and Lingfield in the next three weeks who they beat 4-1, 2-0 and 7-0 respectively in the reverse fixtures
Updated 17:27 - 17 Mar 2019 by Ian Worden