Johannesburg – Thabo Matlaba believes Orlando Pirates need an emphatic victory over Esperance in Saturday’s African Champions League semi-final first leg (Orlando Stadium, 6pm), with a daunting trip to Tunis still on the horizon.
“We must win by at least three or four, so that when we go to Tunisia it can be easy for us,” said an optimistic Matlaba at Pirates training yesterday.
“Because when we play away it can be difficult.”
The Buccaneers left-back says Pirates are desperate to go all the way and add a second Champions League-winning star to the black and white jersey, having already made it through a barrage of tough assignments to get this far.
“We can’t let it slip; we have worked so hard to be here. We just can’t lose this game,” he said.
“We have come so far, we have beaten big teams in Africa – Al Ahly, Zamalek, TP Mazembe – this can’t be our downfall. We must push to the final, we are looking to win this game, at all costs.”
Pirates enjoyed a boost at training on Thursday as winger Sifiso Myeni came through the session, with Roger De Sa optimistic that he could be fit to face Esperance tomorrow.
“Myeni looked good, he came through training pretty well,” said the Pirates coach.
“Tomorrow at training we will make a final assessment, but so far, so good.”
Definitely available is midfielder Thandani Ntshumayelo, who came through a practice match last weekend unscathed. As for veteran striker Collins Mbesuma, De Sa hinted that he might just get a place on the bench.
“Collins played a training match on Saturday and managed to get in one half,” said De Sa.
“He is still a bit away (from fitness) but he is the kind of guy that if we need him to give us 15 minutes, he might just be able to give us that.”
Absent from training on Thursday was Pirates captain Lucky Lekgwathi, who De Sa said “had a death in the family”.
Lekgwathi has been dropped for Pirates’ last two games, against Kaizer Chiefs and Platinum Stars, but De Sa did not rule him out for the Esperance clash.
“He was here yesterday and the day before, he did a double session on Tuesday,” said De Sa.
“He only missed today’s session because of a family bereavement. I am sure he will be here tomorrow and if it is drastic he will let us know.”
The Pirates coach has also expressed himself unconcerned by his captain lashing out at Pirates management in the media over the decision to drop him.
“If he was happy being out of the squad it would be a bigger problem,” said De Sa.
Esperance arrive in Orlando with plenty of recent continental pedigree, having reached the Champions League final in the last three editions, including winning the competition in 2011.
The current Blood and Gold side recovered from defeat in their first Group B match to storm into the semi-finals of this year’s tournament, winning their next five games.
Esperance have international experience throughout their side, from Algerian centre-back Antar Yahia (though he is a slight injury doubt), to Ghanaian defensive midfielder Harrison Afful, to Tunisian playmaker Oussama Darragi, to Cameroonian striker Yannick N’Djeng.
Esperance are coming into this game on the back of a 2-2 draw with Etoile Sahel in a fiery Tunis derby last weekend, their second domestic league game of the new campaign. The Blood and Gold had to recover from 2-0 down with just 10 men, after Darragi was red-carded. Twenty-four-year-old striker Ahmed Akaichi was the Esperance hero, coming off the bench to net a late equaliser. Akaichi also scored the winner in Esperance’s first league game against CA Bizertin.
Their coach, Maher Kanzari, has been the subject of some controversy following that game, allegedly making an obscene gesture at the Etoile bench.
The 26-year-old attacking midfielder Oussama Darragi has been a star for Esperance and the Tunisian national team for some years now.
For Tunisia, he scored a last-minute equaliser against Nigeria in Abuja in a World Cup 2010 qualifier, though the Super Eagles ultimately made it to South Africa.
For Esperance, Darragi was a star of their 2011 Champions League winning side, and picked up CAF’s Africa-based Player of the Year award.
He also scored three times for Tunisia during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, but was dropped by new coach Ruud Krol from the upcoming squad to face Cameroon in a World Cup play-off. Darragi returned to Esperance this season after one season at Sion in Switzerland. And his domestic form has come under criticism of late – Darragi was sent off last weekend in a 2-2 Tunisian league draw with Etoile Sahel.
But he remains a talented playmaker who was one of Esperance’s key players in the group stages of the Champions League, scoring against Sewe Sports and Recreativo Do Libolo.
Esperance’s 23-year-old Cameroonian striker scored the goal that guaranteed the Tunisian giant’s presence in the Champions League semi-finals, his second of a brace sealing a 3-2 win over Recreativo Do Libolo of Angola.
The powerful N’Djeng seems to be coach Mahar Kanzari’s preferred choice in the lone striker role for the Blood and Gold, although he has stiff competition from young Tunisian striker Ahmed Akaichi, who has netted three times in his last three outings for Esperance.
Kanzari seems to prefer to use Akaichi as an impact substitute, but whoever takes the field, the likes of Rooi Mahamutsa and Siyabonga Sangweni will do well to keep them at bay.
N’Djeng has returned to Esperance for a second spell this season, after failing to set European football alight with Sion in Switzerland.
N’Djeng was a key member of the Esperance side that won the Champions League in 2011, netting four times in the group stages, with a hat-trick against MC Alger and the winner at home to Al Ahly.
Lennox Bacela has been thrust right into the firing line since joining Orlando Pirates this season, and the 30-year-old striker has coped fantastically.
“He has,” agreed Roger De Sa this week.
“There has been a lot of pressure on Lennox, he’s been thrown in and he has had to perform. He hasn’t had too much rest, he’s been asked to play week in, week out. He’s just joined Pirates, and his first 10 games have been so high profile.
“It’s been Kaizer Chiefs, Al Ahly, Zamalek, and now Esperance.”
Bacela already has five goals for Pirates this season, two of them coming in the Champions League, in the home and away Group A games against Zamalek.
The former Santos and Bloemfontein Celtic forward has had to take on particular responsibility in the continental fray, given Collins Mbesuma’s injury problems and the fact that Kermit Erasmus is cup-tied.
Bacela is again a certainty to lead the line against Esperance, and will have to be at his sharpest against a strong-looking Blood and Gold defence.
Pirates’ 25-year-old left-back with a rocket of a shot has endured a fairly tricky season so far.
After impressing as a regular in the 2012/13 campaign, Matlaba’s performances rather dropped off this time around, and he recently lost his place in the Pirates side to Patrick Phungwayo.
Phungwayo, however, ruptured his Achilles tendon in the first half of Saturday’s MTN8 final against Platinum Stars, and Matlaba came on to excellent effect, reminding all of his attacking potency with a long-range equaliser to take the game into extra-time.
Matlaba will need to get the balance exactly right tomorrow evening between bombing forward and protecting against Esperance’s attacks, with Pirates needing to go for the win, but also requiring responsibility, coach Roger De Sa stressing the importance of a home clean sheet.
Matlaba could have to counter the threat of a couple of tricky wide forwards today, in Tunisian international Oussama Darragi, and Algerian winger Youcef Belaili.