Orlando Pirates enter a critical period in the Absa Premiership challenge, starting with what spokesperson Mickey Modisane described as a true test of their credentials against Mamelodi Sundowns at the revamped Orlando Stadium this weekend.
Later this month they line up against AmaZulu, the in-form Ajax Cape Town and their arch-enemies and fellow title challengers Kaizer Chiefs. While people all over celebrate Valentine’s Day, Pirates will have to put their emotions on hold and be ruthless if they are to put their hands on the elusive Holy Grail.
They have been unbeaten since Chiefs stopped their seemingly relentless march towards the title last year, so the clash against the Amakhosi on February 26 will be a defining moment. Modisane said they were taking each game as it came and their focus was on this weekend’s clash against a vengeful Sundowns.
“Every day people ask me how it feels up there,” said Modisane, “but they should be asking us about sustainability. Although not privy to what coach Rudi Krol tells the players on a daily basis, I can safely say he is working very hard to keep them grounded and refrain from getting carried away.”
Modisane recalled some painful memories from the past seven years: once when they led the race from the start under Kostadin Papic and were hotly tipped as favourites to lift the trophy only to choke at the critical moment and watch in disbelief as Chiefs overtook them on the final day; A year later they again set a blistering pace from the first day only for SuperSport United to leave them biting the dust on the final day.
This week Modisane cautioned their supporters not to celebrate too soon — Pirates had a mountain to climb, starting with Sundowns on Saturday night.
“We are mindful of the fact that Sundowns are a quality side,” said Modisane. “We are also aware of the technical changes that have taken place and we know that Ian Gorowa is a capable man assisted by equally capable men in Harris Chueu and Harold Legodi. But our aim is to compete in Africa next year.”
Gorowa made slight changes to the starting XI and gave Elias “Pele” Pelembe the freedom of the Lucas Moripe Stadium. And the tricky lithe Mozambican winger was in his element, dismantling the Santos defence and assisting in all three goals, leaving people wondering why former coach Antonio López Habas wasted him on the bench for the entire first round.
“Sundowns are packed with star players,” said Gorowa, “and for the team to overwhelmingly vote “Pele” their Player’s Player of the Year was indicative of his contributions. Now there is no way that he could have turned into a bad player overnight. Clearly something happened that held him back but he has shown his class during the last two games.”
Characteristics of champions
The Sundowns-Pirates clash will give an indication of which way the wind is blowing and whether the Buccaneers have what it takes to lift the trophy at the end of May. They have clearly had the best form and have displayed all the characteristics of champions, playing ugly football sometimes but ending up winning.
“Look, we have done exceptionally well up to this stage,” said Modisane. “We just need to keep plugging away and hard work is always rewarded. There are only 11 matches remaining and we can almost see the light at the end of a long tunnel. But we cannot slacken the pace now — we know we have to beat the likes of Sundowns and Chiefs if we hope to win the championship.”
Pirates’ greatest challenge will be to keep Zimbabwean Nyasha Mushekwi silent. The striker, who has been tasked with getting the goals in the absence of Katlego Mphela, has come on in leaps and bounds and proved to be a lethal finisher with either his head or his boots. He needs constant policing by the Pirates rearguard.
And then, of course, there is the Teko Modise factor. Gorowa refused to reveal whether the “General” will start the game or come off the bench and said he did not want to put pressure on Modise, who joined the team from Pirates a fortnight ago after going Awol and facing disciplinary charges. Modisane said they did not care whether Modise would play or not. They would concentrate on Sundowns as a team and not individuals.
There has never been a dull moment whenever these two teams have met and this one promises to be a thriller.