Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Orlando Pirates at Sundowns: Benni's not back, Jali's out, Brazilians could go nuts

Just good friends: Roger and Benni

LAST season Loftus Versfeld was sold out for the PSL crunch clash between champions Orlando Pirates and big-spending Mamelodi Sundowns. The missus and I had to sneak through the gates with a little help from sympathetic gatekeepers in Tshwane.

It was standing room only for the clash between Johan Neeskens and Julio Leal - but for all the hype, the game ended disappointingly, 0-0.

Tonight the Buccaneers and Msandawana go at it again – only this time Pirates are the double champions and Sundowns are struggling.

With Dutch coach Johan Neeskens under huge pressure and billionaire chairman Patrice Motsepe hit by fan boycotts and poor form, the Brazilians will go nuts if their expensively-assembled side fail to lift themselves up the PSL table from their current spot just above rock-bottom AmaZulu.

But new Sea Robbers boss Roger de Sa is starting to learn about the pressure of being in charge of the Sowetan giants.

Though his side are fourth in the PSL, Pirates went out of the Telkom Cup on Sunday despite leading 3-1 at Bloemfontein Celtic after 90 minutes. And with Kaizer Chiefs leaving Golden Arrows quivering last night to retain their grip on the top of the table seven points ahead of their arch-rivals, De Sa knows defeat will leave the Ghost grumbling. Loudly.

And Pirates go in to tonight’s match without Andile Jali, their talismanic midfielder. Jali was selected for the national squad by Gordon Igesund this week – only to have his name scratched out when the full extent of the knee problem picked up at Celtic on Sunday was revealed.

This morning Pirates confirmed Jali is out for “at least two weeks” and his midfield partner Oupa Manyisa, who had the crucial penalty saved in the shoot-out on Sunday, is also struggling with a tight hamstring.

The official Pirates website insists “the technical team still has the likes of Onyekachi Okonkwo, Thandani Ntshumayelo and Manti Moholo at their disposal” and the entire nation was looking forward to the return of Bafana’s record goalscorer Benni McCarthy, injured in Igesund’s first game against Brazil way back on September 6.

It now appears Benni is NOT back. With McCarthy’s apparent hamstring strain reaching unexpected lengths and last year’s fall-out with the Wits boss De Sa and his assistant Eric Tinkler in the Telkom KO final yet to be publicly tested, a return was expected by most media outlets previewing the game this morning.

But inside sources suggest McCarthy remains out in the cold for reasons as yet unclear ... it all adds up to a fascinating night in central Tshwane.

My old mate Lucky Lekgwathi, forced in to an emergency full-back position on Sunday, simply says what Roger knows: "We need all three points tonight – we’ll need to concentrate. For the whole game. “We are not under-estimating MamelodiSundowns just because of their current position in the table. They are a very good team.

“We have to forget the past and focus on this game and win. If we score, we need to know how to defend, how to win the game.”

Which is exactly what they didn’t do against Celtic. Sundowns striker Anthony Laffor responds: “We all know that Pirates suffered that awful defeat in Bloem. They will come at us but we want it as bad as they do, if not more.”

The Liberian international added on the Sundowns website: “There is always pressure that comes with playing for a big club like Sundowns, and people are always trying to destabilize the team by creating all sorts of untrue stories that there’s no unity in the club.

"In the dressing room, we are a united family, and the coach, being our father, always makes sure that it stays that way”

“Our supporters shouldn't believe everything that they read, they must know that as Sundowns players, we are working very hard behind the scenes in restoring pride to this big brand, and I strongly feel that we are on the right track”

De Sa has pulled a major surprise by leaving Benni out and four-goal Zambian Collins Mbesuma on the bench, going instead with Zimbabwean Takesure Chinyama and Thulasizwe “JuJu” Mbuyanewho, who has yet to score a goal this season.

Mbuyane told "I don't know whether it is luck or what that I'm always scoring against Sundowns. I am always fired up when we play them and if given a chance I am ready to work hard and won't disappoint."

Personally, I predict another draw – but let’s hope for a few goals this time around. History is against us though. Sundowns drew 0-0 at Ajax Cape Town in their last PSL clash, Pirates drew 0-0 at home to lowly AmaZulu.

The PSL tells us Sundowns and Pirates have met in 55 league matches since 1985. The Brazilians have 23 wins compared to 16 for Bucs, while 16 matches have been drawn.

And big daddy Neeskens may just find his troubled reign at Chloorkop will come to an end if Sundowns finish pointless tonight.

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