Fourth time lucky for sore Bucs?
Fear of a fourth cup final loss in a single season could prove the undoing of Orlando Pirates as they seek silverware in Saturday’s Nedbank Cup final.
The Buccaneers are at the end of one of their best-ever seasons but one that, ironically, might end without a trophy despite their heroics on the African circuit and finishing as runners-up in the two other domestic knockout competitions this season.
An admission from midfielder Sifiso Myeni, in the build-up to the game, that a fear of failure pervades, is indicative of the lassitude after an exhausting campaign. “Losing three finals and going into your fourth … if you lose the fourth it will mean we have nothing to show for our efforts for the past two seasons. No one remembers second-best,” he said.
The match against Bidvest Wits at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium marks the 53rd competitive game in a draining season for Pirates, who started preparing way back in mid-June last year while the other Premier Soccer League sides were still on holiday. They will only break on Sunday, a week after almost everyone else has headed off on their vacations.
Since last July they have gone through the group stages of the Champions League to the final against Al Ahli in November, sandwiched between losing to Platinum Stars in both the MTN8 final and the Telkom Knockout decider.
The exhaustion arising from their endeavours led to a late-season meltdown in their league campaign, which threatened to see them finish as low as seventh. Only on the last day of the league last weekend were they able to ensure fourth place, satisfactory under the circumstances but nowhere close to matching their ambitions.
That fatigue is still at play, with new coach Vladimir Vermezovic insisting it is more mental than physical. He has been candid about just wanting to get this campaign over with and his players away for a decent break, and then to start again afresh with preseason preparations in late June. But not before doing a good job in the final.
Unconvinced about effectiveness
Slowly the Serbian has been revealing his hand as he runs the rule over the players and works out the nucleus of his squad for the next campaign. His experimentation has been quite varied since he replaced Roger de Sa and took charge of his first match in March. Players remain on trial for places in the new season as Vermezovic remains unconvinced about the effectiveness of many.
In particular, he is still struggling to settle on the lead striker, a position that Pirates have battled to fill over the past few seasons. Lennox Bacela is back from injury for the final, but Helder Pelembe and Lehlohonolo Majoro are also able to play the target man.
Kermit Erasmus, for all his failure to deliver on his undoubted ability, is best used as a “false 9”, ghosting in and around the opposing penalty box, drawing defenders out of position and making space for others. He is one of Pirates’ best hopes for next season and meets with Vermezovic’s approval.
The coach wants wingers who can stretch the opposition and penetrate effectively. Tlou Segolela and Khethokwakhe Masuku have been disappointing of late and Pirates get much more from their marauding fullbacks Thabo Matlaba and Happy Jele. Strangely, in his first few games in charge, Vermezovic seemed to think Matlaba was best used in central midfield. Actually, he can – and does – play just about anywhere.
Elsewhere, captain Lucky Lekgwathi might get only a cameo appearance in what could be his last game in a stellar career. He turns 38 in August, a factor that counts against the offer of a contract extension.
He is likely among those the coach is earmarking to go. But at Pirates there is a long history of coaches giving input on departments they feel need strengthening and players they would like to see come into the squad, but then being ignored by the club’s management, who make all the calls on arrivals and departures.
A great example came before the start of the season when De Sa made it abundantly clear to the media he was desperately seeking a new central defender. Instead, he was handed Ghana goalkeeper Fatau Dauda, who has proved a R4-million flop.