Sunday, 3 November 2013

African Champions League final: Pirates go to Cairo with a fighting chance thanks to a moment of Matlaba magic

Relief of Orlando: Thabo Matlaba celebrates
his late equaliser on Saturday night
THERE was only one place to be on Saturday night. Orlando. The Pirates. Our African Champions League finalists reaching for the stars, uniting the football-speaking nation.

Trains shooting past, blaring their hooters in support, motorways laced with the skull and crossbones, a packed house of 38,000, an army in black and white, interspersed with those in gold and black adding their voices to the national clamour for a second star.

The stage has rarely been better set, whether you prefer the ear-splitting choir of vuvuzelas or a rousing rendition of Shosoloza.

But much like their successful quest for continental domination in 1995, the home leg of the final was not quite what the nation had hoped for. A 1-1 draw in Soweto.

LEGEND: With 1995 final-winner Jerry Sikhosana
at Orlando Stadium on Saturday
When they drew the home leg of the final 2-2 against Ivory Coast’s ASEC Mimosas 13 years ago, coach Joe Frickleton was sacked before the second leg and few expected that dramatic away win, courtesy of Jerry Sikhosana’s unforgettable 73rd minute strike.

But Thabo Matlaba’s stunning last-gasp equaliser on Saturday night offers, as I said to coach Roger de Sa immediately after it went in, “a fighting chance” for a side increasingly adept at grabbing draws from the jaws of defeat.

Ah, Drawlando. Their last six Champions League games go LLDDDD. Though the Buccaneers dominated possession – they enjoyed around 68% of the ball - and got plenty of crosses in to the box from Tlou Segolela and Daine Klate, I don’t remember an isolated and impotent Lennox Bacela winning anything in the danger area.

In midfield, the great Andile Jali looked a shadow of his former self, losing possession and growing ever more sluggish as the game against champions and seven-time champions Al Ahly of Egypt wore on. Egypt’s No1 goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy was really stretched only once, brilliantly denying Jali with a strong right hand at full-stretch.

In midfield, Oupa Manyisa pulled the strings and centre-backs Rooi Mahamutsa and Ayanda Gcaba took enormous risks in an effort to push forward after Mohamed Aboutrika’s free-kick had given the visitors a shock lead with a perfectly-placed free-kick from 25 metres.

To be frank, even the too-little-too-late arrival of experienced Zambian striker Collins Mbesuma looked unlikely to save the Pirates, who were lucky to escape a second Al Ahly goal, Ahmed El-Zaher’s effort unfairly ruled offside early in the second half.

Matlaba’s last-gasp effort was as unexpected as it was welcome. Mr De Star insisted afterwards: "We didn’t just sit back, we were offensive, we pushed midfielders in to the attack, we used real wingers, not wide midfielders.

“For the 90 minutes we kept on trying, we didn’t resort to long balls. We didn’t lose our heads. We were patient, we built it up.”

Ultimately, a 1-1 draw – their fourth successive stalemate in the African Champions League – was a highly fortunate result though the frustrated Pirates can rightly claim to have been the better side.

They go to Cairo with captain Happy Jele and midfielder Jali suspended - but the out-of-favour Lucky Lekgwathi and Vieira Masalesa offer obvious replacements.

De Star said: "We still have a fighting chance. There were plenty of coaches in the ground tonight, but I enjoyed it. We showed character, we can turn this around in Cairo next Sunday.

"I don't know if there's a limit to what this lot can achieve, but they just keep pushing. Look, it’s going to be very difficult there’s no doubt about it, but we’ll go there to win."

Truth is, they don’t need to. A 2-2 draw will earn a second star on away goals. 1-1 will force extra-time and penalties. 0-0 will see Al Ahly retain their African crown on that single free-kick, their only real shot on goal away from home.

But to end it as they did in Abidjan 13 years ago, with a win against all the odds, would be a perfect finish to an exhausting Mission Improbable. They have the talent. They have the squad. But do they have the experience against the gritty Egyptians in front of their first real home crowd in months?

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1 comment:

  1. They African team also favorite for me. Every African team also very good team. I love every African team. Thanks.