Solemn air to fly the Jolly Roger
Orlando Pirates might have been given extra time to return to the routine of competitive football, but they will still feel a burden when they return to action on Saturday night in the semifinal of the Telkom Knockout.
Just short of two weeks since the murder of their goalkeeper, Senzo Meyiwa, Pirates play their first game after a week of emotion in the wake of the shooting of a popular and gregarious member of their team.
Meyiwa’s personality dominated the tunnel in the line-up before games. He was a constant wall of noise throughout the matches, and then chirped away in humorous banter afterwards.
From the time the Pirates starting XI line up, in the expansive foyer of the Orlando Stadium, and begin to walk out on the pitch against SuperSport United, so the enormity of their loss will begin to hit home.
How they react will determine whether they are to force a sixth successive cup final appearance.
No one will feel it more than Brighton Mhlongo, who will probably replace Meyiwa.
Mhlongo has just a single senior appearance to his name and has spent the past two seasons firmly seated on the bench.
The 23-year-old played his only Premier Soccer League match some 18 months ago at the end of the 2012-13 season in a 4-1 win over Black Leopards.
He has been inundated with expressions of support over the past week as Pirates personalities rally to bolster his confidence, but Mhlongo will be aware of the stark spotlight that will shine on him as Meyiwa’s successor.
For the rest, Pirates will need character and aggression and to use the memory of their fallen comrade as a positive motivation.
SuperSport United, save for a single blip in a game against Maritzburg United towards the end of last month, have won a remarkable six out of seven matches since Gordon Igesund replaced Cavin Johnson.
It emphasises the quality at the club, who had lost confidence in the previous coach’s methods and tactics but have responded in style to the nervous energy Igesund imparts.
Given everything that Pirates have had to deal with over the past week it could be assumed that this will go SuperSport’s way but it cannot be easy taking on an opponent so fresh from bereavement. There is almost as much of an emotional burden on SuperSport’s squad too.
The second finalist for the November 29 decider will be determined by the outcome of Sunday’s clash between Platinum Stars and Mamelodi Sundowns at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace.
Stars are the holders and hosts but will look as though they are the visiting team. They are expected to press and harry Sundowns in midfield and hold a tight line in defence, keeping any adventurous inclinations in check as they seek to catch their big-spending opponents on the break.
It is a tactic many teams employ against Sundowns, with a fair level of success. Pitso Mosimane often moans about the negative tactics of opponents he accuses of “parking the bus” when they are pitted against his talented charges.
After Wednesday’s goalless draw with an equally stubborn Mpumalanga Black Aces, it was refreshing to hear him look to the shortcomings of his own players, who played with their usual busy aptitude in midfield, but were off target in their decisive passes, heavy on the first touch and short on decision-making ability. This is not to speak of their wastefulness in front of goal.
It is obvious that it is proving a frustration for Mosimane, who continues to tinker with his attack in search of a devastating combination. Khama Billiat is yet to make an impression since his return from injury. Cuthbert Malajila needs a higher percentage of opportunities to deliver goals and Mame Niang is under utilised. The tall Senegalese is not only a man for the long ball attack, when all else fails, but is also surprisingly adept and fleet of foot when playing with confidence. The mocking he gets from his own fans, though, has left him tentative of late.
Ultimately much depends on Teko Modise and his form on the day. He was such a huge factor in winning the league last season but seems to be playing well short of capacity at the moment.
Not that any of this points to a Stars’ victory. The hosts from the Platinum province can only hope for a crumb or two to fall off the Sundowns’ buffet if they are to continue their defence of their title.