Orlando Pirates have moved to within one game of becoming the first South African club to reach the final of the African Confederation Cup – they just need to avoid defeat on Sunday night to advance.
Though the competition is inferior to the more prestigious and lucrative Champions League, it is still a significant achievement for Bucs to have reached this far, particularly as the field in the competition this year has featured many of the Champions League’s stalwarts. None more so than Cairo giants Al-Ahli, who stand between Pirates and a remarkable feat of some resilience.
Pirates lead Al-Ahli, who have won more continental trophies than any other club, by a solitary goal from last weekend’s semifinal first-leg tie at the Orlando Stadium. In effect, they just need a draw in the return in Egypt to win on aggregate and progress to the final.
Pirates have kept clean sheets in two of their last three away matches in the competition but also let in four when they were in Cairo last month for a group game against Al-Ahli’s archrivals, Zamalek.
A stout defensive showing is imperative for the Soweto club, whose veteran centre-back, Siyabonga Sangweni, is suspended for the game. Happy Jele, however, returns after serving his punishment for an accumulation of yellow cards and will likely slot in alongside centre-back Rooi Mahamutsa in the centre of defence or replace Ntsikelelo Nyauza at right back.
Issa Sarr is also set to return to the starting line-up as Pirates look for more midfield muscle to deal with the absence of Oupa Manyisa, cruelly ruled out just a fortnight ago after playing almost nonstop over the past three years.
The Achilles heel is goalkeeper Felipe Ovono, who is likely to be fielded again because first choice Brighton Mhlongo is still working his way back from a knee injury and backup Siyabonga Mpontshane is not registered for the competition.
Pirates’s best bet is probably not to sit back and see what they can absorb but instead play with attacking flair because Al-Ahli will be forced to open up as they seek to cut the deficit. To score an away goal on Sunday would force Al-Ahli to beat Pirates by two clear goals to be able to overturn the deficit.
Pirates have the pace and acumen to employ counterattacks to best effect but are up against a crafty opponent. The Egyptians dominated the second half at the Orlando Stadium last Saturday but ran out of steam because of the altitude.
Al-Ahli will be on the attack from the start, but have lost many of the key players who outplayed Pirates two years ago when they met in the Champions League final. They are short on match practice as the season in Egypt is in recess and will also be without effective crowd support as the match has been moved to Suez, the seaport city at the southern end of the canal of the same name.
Egypt’s jittery authorities want to avoid a large crowd in Cairo, often the ignition for antigovernment dissent. Suez is some two hours’ drive away from Cairo in an area where temperatures at this time of year can touch 39°C. An evening kick-off will be welcomed by both sets of players. Whoever reaches the final is likely to meet Étoile Sportive du Sahel in the deciding game.
The Tunisians stunned many observers by thrashing a hapless Zamalek 5-1 in last weekend’s first leg of their semifinal tie and should successfully defend a four-goal advantage in their return leg in Cairo on Saturday night to go through to the final towards the end of next month.