Johannesburg – Thabo Matlaba unleashed one of his left-footed rockets to ignite last-gasp bedlam here on Saturday night, and give Orlando Pirates renewed hope of winning the CAF Champions League.
With the seconds ticking away, it seemed a touch of class from Egyptian legend Mohamed Aboutrika would give Al Ahly not just a precious away goal, but a victory to take to Cairo for the second leg on November 10.
Then Matlaba weaved himself some space on the edge of the box, and hit a low drive that fizzed across Sherif Ekramy and into the corner of the net. Pandemonium broke out in the stands, that potential second star twinkling slightly brighter on the horizon.
Al Ahly still have to be heavy favourites to bring home an eighth continental title of their own. Pirates did win 3-0 against Al Ahly in El Gouna in the group stages, but that game was behind closed doors. A full stadium in Cairo, against a team with this kind of continental pedigree, will be something else entirely.
But Pirates have shown enough spirit in this competition already to suggest that anything is possible. They will certainly back themselves to score in Cairo, though they will have to be wary, too, of Aboutrika’s swansong.
The Al Ahly and Pharaohs veteran, retiring at the end of this year, marked his final away game in a competition he has already won four times with a quite brilliant free-kick, one that seemed to have secured his side a clinical smash-and-grab win.
No doubt he will be determined to go out with a bang too, in front of his adoring home fans on Sunday.
Orlando Stadium wasn’t quite filled to capacity on Saturday, but it was close, the Buccaneers finally getting the home Champions League support their performance in this year’s competition has deserved.
Roger De Sa went into this game with the same side that had started the semi-final, second leg in Tunis, Tlou Segolela and Daine Klate providing the width, while Sifiso Myeni tucked in behind Lennox Bacela in attack.
Bacela warmed the palms of Ahly ’keeper Ekramy with an early shot, as Pirates looked to make the most of their home advantage. And De Sa’s side ought to have taken the lead as early as the seventh minute, a lovely move ending with Happy Jele crossing for Bacela, whose shot was blocked by Ekramy. The ball spun free for Segolela, who clumsily fired over.
Segolela was then unlucky to be flagged offside after a fantastic run put him clear on goal, and the home crowd were in fine voice, creating a sizzling Soweto atmosphere. Soon, however, they were stunned into momentary silence.
Al Ahly were mainly looking to play on the break, with Abdallah Said particularly sprightly on the right side of midfield, giving Matlaba some notable problems.
In the 14th minute, Said won the ball off Matlaba, and won a free- kick on the edge of the box when he was brought down by Ayanda Gcaba. Up stepped Aboutrika to curl a perfect shot into the top corner, giving Senzo Meyiwa no chance. There was an eery silence in Orlando, bar a cluster of Ahly fans in one corner of the ground.
Pirates had to force the issue even more now, and won a series of first half corners, the delivery of Klate leaving plenty to be desired. Pirates were buoyed on by a crowd that quickly found its voice once more, with Andile Jali the dominant midfielder on show, spraying some wonderful passes. But they rarely looked like breaking down the Ahly defence in the first half, with 38-year-old veteran Wael Gomaa and left-back Sayed Moawad particularly impressive.
Mostly, the Buccaneers were restricted to speculative long-range efforts, with shots from Rooi Mahamutsa, Oupa Manyisa and Myeni all flying off-target.
Pirates were extremely fortunate at the start of the second half, as Abdel Zaher, played in Soliman, who beat Meyiwa, only for an incorrect offside flag to save the Buccaneers.
Pirates, however, then ramped up the tempo and with neater passing around the penalty area began carving far more holes in the Ahly defence.
But Matlaba had the final say, and Pirates can dream once more.