Saturday will mark the last match Orlando Pirates play before their nail-biting African Confederation Cup final. It will signal the end of a string of tough encounters that have provided a bewildering sequence of topsy-turvy results that emphasises the mercurial nature of the Buccaneers, offering glimpses of both trophy-winning potential and morbid mediocrity.
It is no ordinary match that concludes a run of six encounters in 17 days, but rather a repeat derby clash against Kaizer Chiefs at Soccer City, exactly seven days after they unexpectedly humbled Amakhosi 3-1 in the Premier Soccer League.
This Saturday’s game is a semifinal in the Telkom Knockout, which not only presents the chance for a rare back-to-back triumph over their arch foe but also a welcome opportunity to boost morale and hone skills before the face an even bigger assignment later in the month.
Pirates are the first South African outfit to reach the final of the African Confederation Cup where they are set to meet one of the continent’s most successful club sides, Etoile Sahel of Tunisia, over two legs on November 21 and 29.
A taxing fixture list so close to such a prestigious and ground-breaking tie would ordinarily have any coach worried about injuries, fatigue and focus – but for Eric Tinkler the more pressing concern is the mid-month break for international matches.
Once Pirates have the Chiefs game out of the way on Saturday, they will see key players depart to join national teams for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Thamsanqa Gabuza, Mpho Makola and Thabo Matlaba have been called up for Bafana Bafana’s two-legged tie with Angola, goalkeeper Felipe Ovono goes home to Equatorial Guinea and hard-tackling midfielder Issa Sarr is in the Senegal squad.
Ghana have also selected Edwin Gyimah for international duty, though he is not registered to play for Pirates in the CAF competition.
“I’m likely only to have them back on the Thursday and then we play Etoile on Saturday. I’m much more worried about that than I am about all the matches we have been playing of late,” says Tinkler.
Ordinarily the feat of booking a spot in a pan-African competition final would have the former South African international midfielder, whose playing days took in stints in both Series A and the English Premier League, fêted: dispensing with the likes of Egypt’s formidable Al Ahli in the continental competition is a rare achievement.
But a series of mediocre returns in league matches have produced a flurry of derision from so-called supporters and even a Twitter campaign #TinklerMustFall.
Tinkler’s tenure in the Pirates’ post has never been secure, with the club pointedly referring to him as caretaker coach, even when he signed an extension to carry on in the job into the new season. He has been in charge for almost a year now since Vladimir Vermezovic departed.
But the achievement of conquering some of the continent’s top teams while battling through a hectic schedule, including no post-season break or preseason preparation, speaks to his coaching credentials.
It has always been acknowledged that Tinkler is a competent coach, but the dismantling of Chiefs last Saturday offered a high-profile stage to confirm it.
Pirates had been set out cleverly, pressing Chiefs vigorously from the start, setting out a 15-minute block of intensity to restrict and rattle the foe, squeezing them out of space and restricting any forward movement, before Pirates could take the foot off a little and recover themselves.
They applied another 15-minute block of intense pressure before half-time and repeated the exercise in the second stanza, shackling Chiefs to such an extent that Amakhosi were left looking rather second-rate.
On Wednesday night in Cape Town, the thinking was similarly smart. Ajax Cape Town like to play a high line and so Pirates brought some pace into the line-up and put the ball behind the home defence, setting up several early chances that laid the platform for a 2-1 victory.
But they did look completely knackered by the end of the game, which means there is no chance for them to get in some decent preparation for Saturday’s repeat meeting with Chiefs.
But it will still be intriguing to see what Tinkler has up his sleeve this time around.