Pirates head for rough Cairo seas

The potentially devastating blow to the chances of Orlando Pirates in the African Champions League final came not so much when Al Ahly's Mohamed Aboutrika floated a free kick into the home team's net in last Saturday's first leg, but rather in the two yellow cards flashed by the referee.

Both Happy Jele and Andile Jali were booked at Orlando Stadium – adding to the cautions they collected in the semifinal round, and are, as a result, suspended for Sunday's return match in Cairo. This effectively deprives Pirates of half the quartet of stellar performers who have carried the team this far in the competition.

Jali and Jele, together with defender Rooi Mahamutsa and midfielder Oupa Manyisa, have been the bedrock on which the Buccaneers have progressed to within one game of being crowned continental champions 18 years after their only previous triumph.

But although coach Roger de Sa has sought to underplay the potential blow their absence inflicts, there is no denying that his side goes into Sunday night's encounter in Cairo effectively shorn of a limb.

Jali, despite all his injury problems this year, has arguably been the player of the competition for Pirates, but his combustible nature has turned out to be to their detriment in the end. His aggression in the midfield, ability to link up all the play and drive forward on occasion has given Pirates a real edge. He possesses a nasty streak, which gives him a terrier-like tenacity despite his small stature.

Occasionally, he gets in on goal too, as seen on Saturday night, when he cracked goal-bound a shot that was stopped by a brilliant one-handed save from the Al Ahly goalkeeper to deny him a goal.

Pirates eventually did manage to tie the first leg at 1-1, but not before Jele was booked, depriving the side of his persistent forays forward down the right flank that effectively keep the opponent tied up.

Without the pair, the effect of the away goal, so cunningly fired home by Aboutrika on Saturday, is even more pronounced.

Pivotal player
It was a conversion of sublime brilliance, emphasising that even as he contemplates retirement, the talismanic Aboutrika remains the pivotal player for the defending champions. He will be relieved that Jali will sit in the stands.

But possibly as key for Al Ahly on Sunday will be the 12th man: the fans to encourage them and give them an edge largely absent through this year's competition.

Skittish military authorities have allowed a restricted crowd for the match and agreed to it being played in the heart of the capital, albeit not as Al Ahly wanted at the city's main and intimidating cavernous stadium, but rather the patchy Arab Contractors Stadium just off the city's main ­arterial El Nasr road.

Being exiled to El Gouna and forced behind closed doors in the group phase was a burden for the Egyptians, who thrive on the rabid support of their Ultras and the way it spooks their opponents. Now they have a decent number of them on hand to serve as motivation.

But they will still have to do the work on the field against a Pirates side who have played superior football throughout the competition, but have been hampered, at times, by naivety and poor decision-making.

As is always the case with South African sides, they have manufactured myriad clever chances, but have been let down by a poor last touch or wayward shooting.

There have been just one or two halves in the entire Champions League where Pirates midfield has been outplayed, or not able to provide a steady supply line of balls for the attackers.

Herculean task
On Sunday they must be competitive in the middle in order to score at least one goal to be in with a chance. The away goal conceded last Saturday demands that they at least match Al Ahly's strike at the Orlando Stadium. Doing so in a citadel that has rarely been successfully overrun is a Herculean task for Pirates, but not an impossible one. Their doggedness, cultivated through the trials and travails en route to the final, is going to be essential.

They have got the better of blind referees, Machiavellian manipulators, tedious travel, inhospitable hotels and exhausting endeavour to get so tantalisingly close to glory.

They have also had some internal ructions involving captain Lucky Lekgwathi, sidelined for several weeks, but set to make a comeback as Jele's replacement.

Lehlogonolo Maselesa will come in for Jali, but he sits much deeper and acts more as cover for the back four as opposed to the conductor Jali has become.

Players like Sifiso Myeni, Lennox Bacela, Daine Klate and Tlou Segolela are capable of match-winning brilliance, but it is never obvious if they are in tune or horribly off key. Often there is no middle ground.

In Pirates's favour is the fact that Al Ahly will be more adventurous at home, opening up much more than in their cagey performance away in the first leg. But they will not risk a flowing approach, wary of the threat of the quicker South Africans.

This is a game where, if Pirates score first, there is every chance they will repeat their heroics of 1995 and return home with an incredible achievement.

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