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Can Pirates end trophy drought?

Is the wait finally over? That will be the burning question on the minds of many Orlando Pirates supporters as their team face Soweto rivals Moroka Swallows in the MTN8 final at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday.

Pirates last won a major knockout competition in 2000 — ironically, it was the same lucrative MTN8 trophy, then known as the BP Top 8 trophy. With winners guaranteed a whopping R8-million cheque, the biggest football cash prize on the continent, victory in Durban would make up for almost a decade of heartache for one of South Africa’s most decorated clubs.

But, their biggest obstacle may not be the Dube Birds but complacency. The Bucs paved their way to the final when they claimed the scalp of fierce rivals Kaizer Chiefs in front of 65 000 fans at FNB Stadium last weekend. Given little chance ahead of that Soweto derby, the Bucs surprised Amakhosi with a Katlego Mashego second-half goal to book a ticket to the Durban final.

This week, Bafana Bafana and Pirates goalkeeper Moneeb Josephs dismissed suggestions that when they come up against Swallows, overconfidence would be a factor. “We cannot afford to underestimate this team [Swallows]. They beat Ajax Cape Town, probably the best team in the league at the moment, to be in this final. The fact that Swallows scored three goals against such a quality side is a big enough warning not take them lightly,” said Josephs.

The Bafana second-choice goalkeeper shared the fans’ excitement at being in the final. “The chance of winning medals such as the MTN8 is what motivated me to join this big club two years ago. Although it comes with a lot of pressure, what players are feeling right now is good pressure,” he said.

Despite the positive attitude of Josephs, coach Ruud Krol has not forgotten the disappointing end to his first major final in charge of the Buccaneers. Tipped as favourites, Pirates lost the Telkom knockout 2-1 to Ajax Cape Town in 2008.

It is something Moroka Swallows’ German coach, Rainer Zobel, will be keen to exploit against his much-fancied opponents. Speaking ahead of the clash, the former Bayern Munich star told the media about the weaknesses he had observed in the Bucs camp. “I saw things I can work on. For example, there is a weakness in Pirates’ defence, which I saw in their 1-0 win over Chiefs in the semifinal at the weekend,” Zobel told the media after Tuesday’s training.

He claimed there were other weaknesses he preferred to keep to himself, rather than alert Krol. “They will find out what we plan on Saturday night,” he said. After guiding his team to an absorbing 3-2 victory over the Urban Warriors in the other semifinal of this competition, Zobel can back up his words.

Krol has heeded the warning and is playing his cards close to his chest in terms of the tactics he would employ against his unpredictable Soweto neighbours. On Wednesday, he ordered the sizeable media contingent that had watched his team’s brief shooting practice to leave Johannesburg Stadium before the kick-off of a match between the probable starting line-up for Saturday and the Pirates B-team.

Still, the Dutchman’s stance was a shade too late as the exclusion of talisman Teko Modise from both the A and B teams had already set tongues wagging among the members of the fourth estate. Modise has been a pale shadow of the player that illuminated the local league two years ago for both club and country.

The off-form midfielder was the victim of some intense booing from a section of the Orlando Pirates supporters in the first leg of the MTN8 against Chiefs after another dismal performance. At that time, Krol was quick to defend his player and was widely quoted in the media as saying: “Teko can always do something unpredictable, something you are hoping for, and he will come back to the good form. It is a pity when the supporters boo him when they should give him more credit.

“Of course, when you are down it is not easy because people keep talking about you and boo you, but Teko will return to form.”

Yet, even Krol appears to have lost patience and confidence in Modise as the player to give him a much-needed reprieve from the Pirates camp, which is unhappy about the Dutchman’s failure to win a major trophy for the club since his arrival in 2008.

He not only left the Bafana Bafana star out of his starting XI last Sunday, but also kept him on the bench for the duration of the 1-0 victory over Chiefs.

With Tlou Segolela, Daine Klate, Isaac Chansa, Andile Jali and Dikgang Mabalane among some of the better players on form at Pirates, Modise will count himself lucky to get a five-minute run in Pirates’ formidable midfield.

While Pirates bemoan the demise of their star, the Birds were a relieved lot after news filtered through that semifinal two-goal hero and stand-in captain Siyabonga Nomvete will play in the final. The veteran striker was admitted to hospital early this week to undergo an operation on his wrist. Although he will play with a cast, Swallows will be happy to have their in-form skipper lead the team.

The Birds have also pledged to give the players half of the R8-million prize pot if they beat Pirates.

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