Three away games this weekend for South Africa’s remaining representatives in this year’s African club competitions pose the very real threat that the country will have no further representation come Sunday night.
Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates are all in various states of peril as they venture off across the continent for difficult assignments in alien climes on Saturday and Sunday.
With Bidvest Wits already embarrassingly eliminated at the first hurdle by Swaziland’s part-time police team, further setbacks this weekend could prove a further blow to the hopes of an upturn in South African performances in pan-African competition plus dent the prestige of the much-moneyed Premier Soccer League.
Chiefs are in the most danger of going out, needing something of a minor miracle to continue in this year’s African Champions League.
Severely eroded advantage
Of the trio of South African clubs on international assignment this weekend, they probably have the least appetite for the fight, seemingly still not convinced of the merits of a Champions League campaign while desperately trying to keep intact the massive points advantage they enjoyed in the PSL title race, which has been severely eroded in recent weeks.
Chiefs were profligate in front of goal in Durban in the first leg of a difficult second round tie against Raja Casablanca of Morocco and paid a potentially costly price for a defensive lapse and the decision to keep Itumeleng Khune on the bench as they conceded an early goal and lost 1-0.
Raja, as is common cause with the Arab teams competing in the Champions League, then attempted to keep a tight rein on Chiefs’ chances with some tenacious defence. When they were breached, they then watched gleefully as Amakhosi squandered several chances to equalise and possibly even to win the match.
Now at Casablanca’s Mohamed V Stadium on Sunday night, Raja will be in pole position, needing only a draw in front of their intimidating home supporters to advance. Chiefs face a long journey to Morocco via Dubai and will probably be more worried about how fresh they can emerge from the travels for the game against AmaZulu next Thursday, April 9, which is key to their domestic title hopes.
For Mamelodi Sundowns, there is a much shorter trip and they will be heading to Lubumbashi on Thursday in the comfort of a charter jet.
Suitcases of cash
But that is as cushy as it is likely to get for Sundowns. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a well-earned reputation for an inhospitable approach to visiting teams and for offering suitcases of cash to match officials to engineer penalties and other advantageous calls.
Sundowns would have liked to have had a bigger advantage to take to Mazembe’s new stadium, where they will play on an artificial turf on Sunday afternoon, but only scrambled in a late winner in the first leg in Pretoria despite Mazembe having a player sent off.
A 1-0 lead is going to be tough to keep intact, although Mazembe will be forced to be much more expansive in their approach, which allows Sundowns the potential to counter. Mazembe have an ageing defence and Sundowns’ considerable pace, offering the chance for Pitso Mosimane’s side to get a vital away goal, which would then require Mazembe to win by two clear goals if they are to advance.
It is the same test that Orlando Pirates faced two years ago when they lost the battle but won the war, going down 1-0 but still claiming a 3-2 aggregate success.
That game was the making of many of their squad as they learnt the harsh realities of playing away from home in Africa, but which in the end turned out to be vital experience for the team.
Orlando Pirates will this weekend be playing in Kampala in the African Confederation Cup, markedly less prestigious and significantly less lucrative than the Champions League and difficult to conjure up much enthusiasm for.
But coach Eric Tinkler has insisted they are taking the quest as seriously as they did their Champions League campaign of two years ago, which was a heart-stoppingly heroic affair and reintroduced a sceptical South African audience to the potential excitement of international club competition.
Pirates should have won easily over Uganda Revenue Authority but, after squandering numerous chances, conceded a calamitous own goal in the last minute. Pirates’ 2-1 lead now offers the Ugandan taxmen the possibility that a 1-0 win on Saturday afternoon will allow them to advance to the third round on the away goals rule.