Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Pick him or explain: Bafana boss Gordon Igesund's get out of Jali free card

Orlando Irates: Igesund has ignored Andile Jali
The little terrier in the midfield was 16 and playing in an under 19 tournament in Port Elizabeth when Clive “The Dog” Barker first spotted the unique talent that is Andile Jali.

That was in 2006 when no-prisoners midfielder Rino Gattuso was strutting his stuff for Milan in a very similar style. Jali, a scholar at Khanya Naledi Combined school in Itsokolele near Matatiele, came through the local All Stars academy on the border of KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape and Lesotho.

Known locally as Cheese-Mnana, local coach Salathiso Ntabeni had him playing adult football from from the tender age of 15 at Hots Spurs FC before he joined Vodacom Soccer league club Matatiele Professionals.

Ntabeni apparently had to present Andile Ernest Jali’s birth certificate several times to prove there was no dodgy business going on in that Easter tournament in Port Elizabeth seven years ago. And within 12 months, Jali had been recommended to AmaTuks coach Steve Barker by his uncle Clive, where his talent was nurtured alongside Bongani Khumalo and Lerato Chabangu.

History tells us all three went on to bigger things.

Jali – often nicknamed Gattuso - is now 22 and has won SIX trophies since his 2009 move to Orlando Pirates, not to mention 11 Bafana caps despite missing the World Cup with a “minor heart ailment” which has not been mentioned since he was sent for specialist treatment in Florida, USA, in May, 2010.

Now the fairy tale has hit another snag. Though still incredibly young by international standards, Jali finds himself in the World Cup wilderness under no-nonsense Bafana Bafana coach Gordon Igesund, who also overlooked him for the African Cup of Nations earlier this year.

When he picked his first squad for the Brazil 2014 qualifiers this month, Igesund went to great pains to explain why he had dropped his captain, Bongani “Mr English” Khumalo, and Ajax Amsterdam midfielder Thulani “Our Messi” Serero from his 23.

He told us Khumalo was suffering a “slight injury” and was only on the bench at Greek club PAOK. Serero’s elimination was even more damning: “He needs mental strength. During the African Cup of Nations he was scared of getting injured.”

But when asked why Jali, who looked like a world beater in the Confederations Cup as a lively teenager nearly four years ago, was not included, Igesund growled: “I won’t discuss players who aren’t in my squad.”

Bang. Off-the-record conversations with Barker, Pirates coach Roger de Sa and other well-connected sources offer no clear reason for this baffling Bafana boycott of one of the PSL’s most talented midfielders.

Perhaps, in an unnecessary interview with Kickoff magazine, these words from the little man himself may help to explain: “People do not understand me – they never will – and it’s not my job to make them understand.

 “I don’t know why, but a lot of people have a problem with me. Most people do not know the real Andile, they just know that I play for Orlando Pirates and because of that they think they know me.

 “I will not be told what to do by who think that they know me. They spread rumours that Andile is like this or that. Those who know me will tell you what kind of person I am. Those who don’t know me? That is their problem.”

These are hardly the words of a player eager to build Bafanesque bridges.

I have, despite efforts by phone, twitter and email, no searing insight in to the Jali psyche. He has occasionally slipped up, been accused of typically footballish incidents and upsets. One coach suggests he has a temper, there are whispers of a particular training ground bust-up and he was bailed along with team-mate Ndumiso Mabena on allegations of assault in 2011, though charges were later withdrawn.

But there is no career-damaging record of ill-discipline or no-I-in-team behaviour that I can uncover.

During the 2010 World Cup, where those heart problems saw him left out after a storming 
Confederations Cup, the German scouts in camp at Velmore near Erasmia also expressed a worry over his lack of physical stature. But as I said to them then, Lionel Messi, Jermain Defoe and Shaun Wright-Phillips are hardly giants.

Dean Furman, the super-fit Doncaster rover who has (unless you’re a Buccaneer) replaced Jali in Bafana’s affections, is surprisingly slight too. Both lack aerial power, perhaps their only weakness in the demanding defensive midfield role.

My view, brought on by Sunday Times Sports Editor Bareng-Batho Kortjaas’s column the day BEFORE Bafana’s rousing 2-0 win over the Central African Republic, is that Jali SHOULD feature in the squad.

When Furman was injured in a clash of heads and was forced off by double vision just before half-time in Cape Town last Saturday, Bafana suffered a 10-minute spell where Jali’s presence as Furman’s replacement was sorely missed after half-time.

Ironically, Oupa Manyisa – Jali’s Piratical partner – filled that hole when he came on and shape returned.

There are those who say Igesund is above critique right now, having – with just one win – restored hopes of a miraculous Brazilian crusade.

But for as long as Jali remains out of the squad, the question will continue to bug Igesund’s as-yet-unsecure tenure until 2018. It is simply not good enough to write him off as “not good enough” or to fall back on the tired old “I spoke to his coach” explanation.

And “I won’t discuss players not in the squad” will only further goad the typically bolshie Buccaneers, who point out Jali’s role in their recent double-treble reign.

The “get out of Jali free card” is in Gordon’s hands now. If Jali plays well for Pirates until the end of the season, Igesund MUST pick him for the still-in-doubt trip to war torn central Africa on June 7 – or offer a full explanation.

The black-and-white half of our footballing nation deserves at least that.

PS: Crystal Palace fan Ed Aarons, the former Citizen football correspondent now working for the Independent in London, offers this view on Kagiso Dikgachoi, the man Gordon prefers to Jali: "KG has been played out of position of late so hard to judge but lost place in centre to young Joniesta. Think best years are behind him."

Sunday, 24 March 2013

It's not a CAR crash: Matlaba's wondergoal, Ethiopia's late winner and the rocky road to Brazil

Bruised Bafana: Dean Furman after his visit to hospital

Many of us were still raving about Thabo Matlaba’s cracker for Bafana Bafana in Cape Town on Saturday night when a far more significant strike hit the back of the net in Addis Ababa on Sunday afternoon.

We have every reason to hail Orlando Pirates full-back Matlaba’s effortless effort as one of the best  for South Africa – and no cause to doubt the value of Bernard Parker’s strike in a well-deserved 2-0 win over the war-torn Central African Republic in Cape Town.

But it was Getaneh Kebede’s highly-fortunate 88th minute goal for Ethiopia – which secured a vital 1-0 win over our neighbours Botswana – which may just prove the most significant moment when it comes to deciding who travels to Brazil next year.

Gordon Igesund was understandably upbeat after his side’s well-deserved triumph over CAR – he even talked in terms of a slightly premature scouting trip to Brazil to assess conditions, grinning: “We don’t want to get caught out. I know some people are laughing, but we have to look at where we can set up camp next year!”

World Cup debutant Igesund, who wasn’t in charge for the opening Group A draws against Ethiopia in Bafokeng and Botswana in Gaberone last year, said: “Just getting the win was so important for us – yes, we could have scored more goals but we were better than them in all departments.

“You can’t say we were careless, we created chances and we scored two of them. We do get a little excited in front of goal and we could have won 4-0. But you can’t ask for more than a win and I think we can go there and get points. The guys are starting to believe in themselves, but it’s not going to be easy – I’m told we’ll play on a small pitch.

“As long as we’re playing attacking football I’m happy. We’ve got to keep working on these things. We’ll get better and Tokelo Rantie will get better and he’ll get his confidence.”
Igesund surprised analysts by picking Bloemfontein Celtic’s Thabo Nthethe to partner Morgan Gould at the heart of his defence ahead of Russian-based Siyanda Xulu and Gould’s Kaizer Chiefs colleague Tower Mathoho.

He grinned: “Nthethe was outstanding. He doesn’t play for a “big” team but he’s an unassuming lad who won every ball and I’m very, very pleased with his performance.”

As for the clash-of-heads injury to Doncaster Rovers midfielder Dean Furman, Igesund said: “Deano has gone to hospital, he has a couple of stitches in his eye. He had to go to hospital because he had a bit of double vision.

“You’d think he had gone a couple of rounds with George Foreman by the way his face looks!”

Bafana media officer Matlhomola Morake later tweeted the picture above and told Deano’s growing fan club: “Furman is fine and back with the team, nothing broken. Cut above the eye and sore nose. Not serious.”

We should also question the vision of one Herve Lougoundji, the CAR coach. Raging about his side's disallowed goal – which clearly involved a “hand of God” – he said: “In Africa the issue is referees. The way he handled this match was NOT okay.

“How can the referee call a goal, and the linesman did not show any sign of a problem until the players started shouting? It is not acceptable at all.”

Igesund’s reply sums that debate up rather well: “It’s not even a debate – you can’t score a goal with your hand. It was definitely a handball.”

So at the halfway point in qualifying, both Ethiopia and South Africa are unbeaten – but Bafana trail by two points with tough away games against CAR and the leaders to come plus a home three-pointer against Botswana’s Zebras. Igesund’s scouts have already warned conditions on the road in CAR will be “a nightmare”.

The big question now is: What happens to Bafana’s June 7 clash in the Central African Republic? On Sunday, the civil war in the landlocked nation raged on with rebels forcing the President Francois Bozize to flee amid reports of SIX South Africa soldiers – assigned to provide “VIP protection” for the president - killed.

Assuming peace returns and football can be played, South Africa can travel to CAR with some confidence, having outplayed their higher-ranked rivals in Cape Town, while Igesund will desperately hope that Botswana, bottom of group A with a single point, get something from their clash with Ethiopia in Gaberone.

But if the trouble continues, a neutral venue may be needed – or CAR could find themselves unable to complete their fixtures. That would mean points earned against them are forfeited, meaning both South Africa and Ethiopia lose 2-0 wins.

But perhaps the final word today should go to Mr Matlaba. Hero of the hour. His take on a wondergoal? “Gordon tells us to believe in ourselves. I did. I always try to shoot from distance. I told myself wasn’t going to pass. So I took a shot – and hit the target.”

If only all things were that simple.

An abbreviated version of this story will appear in www.thenewage.co.za as my Neal and Pray column on Tuesday. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

From Russia with love: All you ever wanted to know about Siyanda Xulu, but were afraid to ask

KwaMashu Kid: Bafana's Siyanda Xulu
Siyanda Xulu came Russian back home to South Africa yesterday, significantly encouraged by the news that BOTH of Bafana Bafana’s incumbent central defenders are now OUT of Saturday’s crucial World Cup qualifier.

Xulu moved to Rostov in Russia during the January transfer window – at R6m his move from Mamelodi Sundowns makes him the most expensive player in Gordon Igesund’s current squad – and was left out of the African Cup of Nations 23 after attending the gathering for the game against Malawi in a pre-AFCON friendly.

But with captain Bongani Khumalo and Orlando Pirates’ goal-scoring rock Siyabonga Sangweni both now out of contention, there is every chance Xulu, still just 21, will start at the Cape Town stadium.

Both Khumalo and Sangweni carry fascinating tales. Khumalo was backed to the hilt by Igesund when he was accused of being too good at English and even better at ball-watching during AFCON. But last Friday Igesund dismissed him thus: “Bongani is not even in the team at PAOK in Greece – and I hear he’s carrying a slight injury. So I didn’t pick him.”

But he DID pick Sangweni, who clearly played in the Soweto derby carrying the knee injury that was supposed to put him out for six weeks. Roger de Sa clearly felt gambling in front of 90,000 was the right thing to do – and his side duly managed to keep a cleansheet in a 0-0 draw with their arch-rivals. Sangweni’s leadership – if not his mobility – clearly made that possible.

Before the squad announcement, we had been told that both Sangweni and his former team-mate Tokelo Rantie, now at Malmo in Sweden, were unavailable. But Gordon picked them both. Was this an effort to keep Buccaneering fans happy? Was he worried that, by naming Tower Mathoho and Morgan Gould in central-defence – it Amakhosi goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune assuming the captain’s armband – we might face a footballing civil war?

None of this politicking bothers Xulu. A calm, older-than-his-years sort of guy, I got hold of Xulu in Rostov last week, a few days after he had been named Man of the Match after a 0-0 draw against Alaniya in front of an audience spanning the length of the world’s largest nation.

Just how excited was he to have found a place back in the squad so soon after his AFCON disappointment? “No look,” he said between the crackles and delays of the international telephone network, “Whenever I get picked, it’s an honour. I have always believed it is important to play for South Africa. I am so proud.”

Of course, those may just be words. But for my money, Xulu appears to put patriotism before cash.
The very mention of the sprawling township of KwaZulu outside Durban brings out a whole new Siyanda: “I grew up in KwaMashu,” he recalls, “It will always be home. I live here in Russia on my own in an apartment.

“At first I missed my family, my friends, all my loved ones soooo much. But now I am starting to get used to living alone. I’m going to fly a friend out after the World Cup game for company.

“And it’s great to be asked to come home for this game. But I have travelled a lot.

“Two years ago I went to Barcelona on trial but just as they said they were going to sign me to their academy, they restructured (Joan Laporta was deposed as club president) and it all fell through.

“I also went to Arsenal and trained with them for two weeks. Arsene Wenger had some very nice things to say but then Atletico Madrid made a bid for me – they heard what happened at Barca – but that fell through too.

“So I came back and played in Mamelodi before Rostov made their bid. It was a long story, the price kept going up, but eventually I made the move."

The busy town of Rostov is no stranger to South African imports. Matthew Booth, Tony Coyle, Rowan Hendricks, Bennett Mnguni and Japhet Zwane all played for the mid-table Russian Premier League outfit, which has undergone a number of name changes since the club's creation in 1930. The town itself is around the size of Durban, a port on the banks of the River Don.

They currently lie 12th in the RPL, way behind leaders CSKA Moscow, big-spending Anzhi and St Petersburg glamour club Zenit. But with a fair wind and a couple more wins, they should survive in the 16-team table with a four-point cushion currently keeping them clear of the relegation zone.

With nine games left this season, Xulu accepts: “It was tough, but now I'm quite happy in Russia. It’s just the weather. And the language. The only things I can say in Russian are “left”, “right” and “hi”. I am learning the language but it’s very difficult – even the letters are different!

“That’s why I am so happy to come home for this game. A chance to see everyone again. If I am picked to start the game, that’s great. I will do what I can. The World Cup in Brazil next year is very important, I would love to be there.

“But whatever happens, playing for South Africa has always been, will always be my No 1 dream.”

THIS article also appears tomorrow as my "Neal and Pray" column in www.thenewage.co.za.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Mor Diouf on THAT 70-yard super-strike: "I knew it was in. I've done it before"

Wonder goal: Mor Diouf, second left, is mobbed by team-mates

MOR DIOUF was a bit of a footballing journeyman until about 17h18 on Sunday afternoon in the otherwise quiet South African township of Atteridgeville. Then he became world famous as “Diouf the Hoof”  in a single, astonishing moment.

Like David Beckham, who scored from his own half in the last century, Diouf chose the 87th minute of the Tshwane Derby (that’s Pretoria to the Voortrekkers) to produce his miracle and beat big-spending rivals Mamelodi Sundowns 1-0.

The SuperSport United defender from Senegal via Maritzburg United can take it from here: “I looked up. I saw the goalkeeper off his line. And I hit it. I did. I knew it was in from the moment I kicked the ball.”

Now 25, Diouf recalls scoring something similar for AS Douanes in his homeland as an 18-year-old: “Yes, I’ve done it once before. Same thing. Goalkeeper was not in the right place. But that one might have been from slightly closer. But I remember I was in my own half.”

Opinions vary on distance. The Lucas Masterpieces Moripe Stadium is officially 105 metres long. That’s just about 115 yards in old money. Beckham’s goal for Manchester United against Wimbledon was estimated at 61 yards, but he was far closer to the halfway line on a Selhurst Park pitch officially 110 yards long.

After Diouf’s effort went global, the Sun produced THIS list of long-range strikes, all scored from the other half http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/football/4836084/Top-10-goals-from-inside-own-half-like-David-Beckham.html

But clearly Diouf’s was longer, at 70 yards – and more important. The Beckham goal was scored, over the despairing head of goalkeeper Neil Sullivan, on August 17, 1996. Becks was 22 at the time. The hype surrounding his goal saw him make his debut for England a few weeks later against Moldova.

It is unlikely Diouf will rise to become the richest player in the world on the back of his strike. But at the time, United were 2-0 up after goals from Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin in the opening game of the season.

Diouf’s goal came after 87 minutes in a tight Tshwane derby in a desperate battle for points between two under-achieving sides this season. After the goalless Soweto derby the day before, it looked for all the world like South Africa was in for a dismal blank weekend. But then came the fateful moment.

Diouf, a quiet French-speaker who has not spoken to anybody else in the media despite this week’s rise to global prominence, told me: “My coach Gavin Hunt just came up to me afterwards and said: “Well done”. He said he knew it was going in. He ran the whole way along the touchline with it. He was very please, I think.

“But I’m telling you, it’s no big surprise! In training I often try it. Yes, even at training. Me? I don’t know but always the goalkeepers are off their line when the ball is in the other half. I don’t think goalkeepers like me very much now!

“But me? I think every time, when I have the ball or even a free-kick: is there a chance. I will always try.”

When I asked Mor if he was aware of his new nickname “Diouf the Hoof”, he laughed: “What is hoof? It means kick? I know it. I know I can kick a long way!”

The opposing goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands, in the South Africa squad for the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, had as many answers as Sullivan did after the Beckham effort.

He grinned:  "I thought I had nothing to lose by stepping out a bit because we had possession and were in their own half, pressing. My positioning wasn’t wrong at all and I think it was a perfect goal."

"It was a perfect work of art with God’s hand in it.”

Monday, 11 March 2013

What a weekend: THAT Mor Diouf video, the Q3 table, Stuart Baxter... and Gavin Hunt

Here it is, the Q3 table as it stands right NOW. Kaizer Chiefs won Q1, Platinum Stars took Q2. Chiefs are clearly favourites for the third cheque of R1.5m.

But look at Moroka Swallows, SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits... and even AmaZulu, who are out of the relegation zone in the overall PSL table for the first time this season.

Sadly, life in Cape Town remains gloomy, with Chippa United and Ajax joining plunging Leopards in the bottom three.

1 Kaizer Chiefs 6 4 2 0 10 3 7 14
2 Moroka Swallows 6 3 2 1 9 6 3 11
3 Supersport United 6 3 2 1 5 3 2 11
4 Bidvest Wits 6 3 2 1 8 7 1 11
5 AmaZulu 6 3 2 1 4 3 1 11
6 Orlando Pirates 5 3 1 1 7 4 3 10
7 Bloemfontein Celtic 6 2 3 1 8 6 2 9
8 Free State Stars 6 2 2 2 7 5 2 8
9 Platinum Stars 6 2 1 3 7 6 1 7
10 Golden Arrows 6 2 1 3 5 6 -1 7
11 Mamelodi Sundowns 6 1 3 2 5 4 1 6
12 Maritzburg United 6 1 2 3 4 8 -4 5
13 University Of Pretoria 6 0 4 2 4 7 -3 4
14 Chippa United 6 1 1 4 5 10 -5 4
15 Black Leopards 6 1 1 4 6 12 -6 4
16 Ajax Cape Town 5 0 3 2 4 8 -4 3

These important provisos from the ever-efficient Luxolo September, PSL media manager:

- Kaizer Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates has NOT been included because it is a Q4 match brought forward.

- Q3 will only be complete when postponed matches from this quarter have been played.

Some quotes from Kaizer Chiefs boss Stuart Baxter on SportsTalk last night (www.702.co.za) after the Soweto derby:

“Kingston Nkatha has a bang on his hip, we got him right for the derby but he got another bang on it. Our for at least a week.

“We’re all desperate for success. It’s a bit like Arsenal. We wanted to make this a coaching environment at the club.

“We’ve just finished re-organising the academy and maybe we can get a bit of silverware at the end of the season.

“Kaizer’s ambition is that we will be able to provide for the future from the youth and make one or two marquee signings.

“We have got that sort of talent and we’re hoping to attract it as well.

“We’re gone to have eight cup finals now. We’re hoping to take each one as it comes, prepare meticulously.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had to manage players in such difficult circumstances. The hype for this one is world class, even if the game wasn’t!

“I haven’t woken up with one hand on the title. I’ve woken up like a man who wanted three points yesterday!“

And this from Gavin Hunt, in the pub after Mor Diouf's sensational 60-year "Beckham strike won the Tshwane derby:

"When he hit it, I thought: "Where's that going." Then I saw where Wayne (Sandilands, the goalkeeper) was and I started running. I didn't stop. He'll never do that again in his life, I promise you.

"I actually felt sorry for Pitso (Mosimane). They should have had us 5-0 in the first half. I must be going senile, I forgot to make substitutions until half-time. Then we got better."

Sunday, 10 March 2013

KAIZER CHIEFS 0-0 ORLANDO PIRATES: It's nearly time to accept: Stuart Baxter is worthy

Top of the pile: Stuart Baxter
It’s all very well turning to club PROs and talking heads when you discuss the Soweto derby. But after Saturday’s goalless efforts in front of over 90,000 at Soccer City, you need a man of experience to explain what appears to be a footballing train smash in front of the biggest sporting crowd in the world last weekend.

Gavin Hunt, Mark Fish, Doc Khumalo, Roger De Sa, Clive Barker. They are such men. So too is Stuart Baxter, the coach roundly written off when he arrived, indirectly, to replace the unlamented Brazilian Julio Leal at the helm of the best-supported club in South Africa.

Before the greatest derby in Africa, we had Vina Maphosa, spokesman of Kaizer Chiefs, taking on Mickey Modisane of Orlando Pirates. It was great. We upset Vina earlier in the week by revealing his AmaKhosi had appointed a new acting Managing Director without telling us. Goodnews Cadogan had jumped the gun by revealing his new-found status on Facebook.

On Friday we caught Mickey too – we had a recording of Roger de Sa telling Udo Carelse on 702’s SportsTalk on Thursday night: “Benni McCarthy is just not fit, he can barely kick a ball.” But on Friday morning the official Orlando Pirates website quoted Benni saying he was fit and raring to go for the derby, and that it was just up to the technical team to select him.

Poor old Mickey.  Which was the truth? How could the Buccaneers not spot the contradiction? “I haven’t seen the medical reports,” he complained, “What the coach says is right… and so is Benni.”

Confused? We were.

So when it comes to analysing the game itself, a goalless affair marked by spectacular saves at both ends and what looked to me like a stonewall penalty to the Pirates, you have to turn to THE MAN WHO KNOWS.

That man was born in Wolverhampton, England, 59 years ago, spent an unspectacular year in charge of Bafana eight  years ago and was questioned about the validity of his CV when he returned to South Africa this season.

Now five points clear of his arch-rivals at the top of the PSL, Baxter is on the verge of proving the critics wrong, of celebrating that long-awaited championship with the Amakhosi.

This is Stuart Baxter’s summary of what we ACTUALLY SAW rather than an hysterical reaction to a goalless stalemate: “I'd have liked a better quality game, especially when it comes to passing. But the players worked very hard.

“I've never seen so many good players giving the ball away. The passing game on both sides was erratic. I think that's why it was more end to end, because the transitions (Baxter’s favourite word) were giving each other opportunities.”

“If you take any big derby, Manchester or Milan, they rarely justice do the size of the event. There were nerves out there. I've seen very few really good derby games. Usually they're blood and thunder. I don't think this one really took off.

“I know everybody asks, when we play and Pirates play, if we are sitting glued to the TV, and hoping they're going to lose. I have to say, I don't want any of our players to have that attitude. We don't become a better team if Pirates lose.

"We become a better team if we work hard at our own game, and we become an over-optimistic team sometimes if they lose or drop points.

"It's the same for us. They don't suddenly become 10 classes better if we concede two goals.”

On Kickoff.com, Baxter confessed: “I was quite happy with the first 20 minutes, we got into the game and we settled but we were not creating as many chances as we would like. Pirates took over in the last 15 minutes of the first half, because when we had the ball we gave it back to them.

"I was concerned when we went in at half-time. My team talk was obviously useless because we did the same in the next 15 minutes after half-time. But then for some reason, the lads pulled together and got better defensively.

"If you ask me if we were unlucky (not to get the winner) I don't know. We had a couple of chances towards the finish and their keeper Senzo Meyiwa came up trumps.

“I agree with Roger that it wasn't the best of games in the world.”


Friday, 8 March 2013

Ntsimbi does not rust: Why Siya Sangweni not Benni McCarthy should be the focal point before Soweto Derby

Wounded Pirates: Benni McCarthy and Siya Sangweni

BENNI McCARTHY’S knee is dominating the headlines again, one day before the biggest crowd in the world gathers at Soccer City for the Soweto derby.

Orlando Pirates fans, with their champions going in to the 90,000-strong cauldron five points adrift of arch-rival Kaizer Chiefs, are understandably confused.

Last night on SportsTalk we dragged Buccaneers coach Roger de Sa out of his late afternoon nap and he told us quite clearly: “Benni is struggling with his knee. He can barely kick a ball.”

But this morning, with Talk Radio 702 running that damning statement as our promo for tonight’s show, Orlando Pirates released a statement from Benni himself saying: “I am back doing full training with the boys and so far all is good.

 “Everyone is working hard at training hoping to make it into the squad. The derby is the biggest match in the local sporting calendar, we all want to be a part of it.”

Attempts to reach Benni for clarification have proved impossible. The last update on his twitter account talks about his recent attachment to boxer Chris van Heerden’s camp at Sandton Convention centre last Saturday night. He says: “Hey everyone hope all is good? Big moment for SA Boxing when the Champ Chris van Heerden take on Hatton in Sandton 2nyt. Come and support “

Benni does concede on the Pirates website: “Obviously the team has been playing together for a while and I was out so, I cannot rush things. It’s up to the technical team. If selected to play I hope to be at my best but if not, then I have to push myself to get in the team for the next upcoming matches.”

For his part De Sa, who has been incredibly forthcoming on our show during the Sea Robbers’ mini-slump, says: "Benni is 35 and is not the same any more. He’s a good professional and we do miss him. We don't just miss him on the field but also in the dressing room.

"You got to understand the injuries take a lot longer to heal and he is more prone to injuries now. Benni has never been the ideal athlete. He is a phenomenal footballer with a great football brain.”

And then this: "His injuries are always genuine, the first one was a hamstring tear that he picked up while he was with Bafana Bafana. He tried to come back earlier and it strained again and so he had to sit out another two to three weeks.

"He came back from the Christmas break looking pretty sharp and we were excited that we will at least have Benni for the second half of the season. Then at one of the training sessions he twisted his knee and tore a ligament in that knee.”

My sources tell me that injury was sustained by a tackle from an over-enthusiastic player on trial at Pirates three weeks ago.

De Sa insists: "It happens. It is football and I will tell you that there is nothing behind it. A lot of people are thinking a lot of things but in this case you can see a scan and if you are a doctor you can read the scan and see what it is.”

With the 4-1 Nedbank Cup upset against Maluti FET College, the 3-2 defeat against Moroka Swallows and this week’s draw against Bloemfontein Celtic to deal with, De Sa is under enormous pressure. Defeat against the AmaKhosi would mean an EIGHT POINT GAP and, quite possibly, the end of a turbulent six-month reign for the Mocambique-born former goalkeeper who has, if nothing else, romped through the opening round of the African Champions League.

But Pirates fans would do well to consider the real injury problem in the Buccaneers’ camp. Siya Sangweni, unarguably the key player in Bafana’s African Cup of Nations campaign with two goals and barely a mistake at the back, is the real problem.

Forget Benni and Moeneeb Josephs, they have become peripheral figures. Both will probably head south for Cape Town Ajax at the end of the season, with leadership needed and a cash-injection from Amsterdam promised if McCarthy returns to the Cape, where it all started.

It’s Sangweni, the cattle-loving centre-back from northern Zululand, who is vital.

Just this minute I have received an SMS from De Sa. I asked him how “Ntsimbi” (“Iron” in Zulu) was in training today. He said: “Will assess tomorrow.”

Before Sangweni’s injury three weeks ago, Pirates were on a run of 13 games undefeated. New goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwe had not conceded in five games and they conceded their first PSL goal at the Orlando Stadium late in the game against Celtic on Wednesday.

Sangweni is VITAL to the Pirates. Both as their defensive lynchpin and a scorer of vital goals, in the marauding Pirates style.

When the world’s biggest crowd gather at Soccer City today, Benni McCarthy’s knee – a factor I raised after a chat with West Ham’s chief coach before the World Cup – will no longer be important.

So that’s it. A late fitness test on Ntsimbi – assuming the Iron does not rust - could decide the PSL title tomorrow.

SportsTalk with Udo Carelse airs every night on www.702.co.za at 8pm, we're on from 7-9pm on Fridays and Sundays.  Listen tonight for Vina Maphosa of Kaizer Chiefs and Mickey Modisane from Orlando Pirates going head-to-head before the derby. Follow my twitter updates on the show from @nealcol using the hashtag #sportstalk