Johannesburg – Goal-shy Orlando Pirates host defensively formidable Esperance on Saturday in the first leg of their Caf Champions League semi-final.
The South Africans scored just once in their last three group games, an edge-of-box shot from Lennox Bacela in a defeat by Zamalek in Egypt.
Now Bacela and the Soweto Buccaneers must try and pierce Tunisian opponents who have conceded only four goals in 10 qualifiers and group games.
Esperance goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia ranks among the best on the continent and boasts seven clean sheets during the 2013 African campaign.
Pirates, the only South African winners of the premier CAF club competition, have not had an ideal build-up to the Orlando Stadium fixture.
They lost on penalties in an early-season domestic knockout competition final they were expected to win against Platinum Stars.
And veteran centre-back and captain Lucky Lekgwathi was suspended this week for allegedly bringing the club into disrepute.
Angry at being sidelined for the past two matches, 38-year-old Lekgwathi blamed his exclusion on “politics within the club”.
But coach Roger de Sa believes the Soweto outfit are capable of defeating any African rivals and points to big victories over Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and Zamalek early in the group stage.
A ray of sunshine during a cloudy week for Pirates was the successful fitness test on wide midfielder Sifiso Myeni, who is expected to start.
“Sifiso is a brilliant player who impressed in training this week. We need him to keep Esperance on the back foot,” said De Sa.
“Esperance are a good side with a strong European influence, but we have a plan for them. We cannot come this far just to throw it away.”
Although two-time champions Esperance have netted only 12 goals in 10 games, coach Maher Kanzari insists his team are not overly cautious.
“Our past successes have been built around taking the game to our opponents. Attack is the best form of defence,” stressed the 40-year-old former Tunisia midfielder.
“We have no intention of sitting back and allowing Pirates dictate the pace. South African supporters are fickle and we can unsettle them by scoring first.”
The other first leg features Coton Sport of Cameroon at home against title-holders Ahly in a repeat of the 2008 decider won 4-2 on aggregate by the Cairo Red Devils.
Ahly talisman Mohamed Abou Trika, part of the title-winning squad five seasons ago, praised a Cameroonian side coached by Frenchman Sebastien Desabre.
“I watched them lose narrowly to Esperance in their last group game and they were impressive,” said the central midfielder.
Senior centre-back Wael Gomaa is a doubtful starter because of a hamstring injury for the match in northern cotton city Garoua.
After flying to central Africa by private jet, the Egyptians complained of a “mediocre” hotel while Coton insisted it was the best available.
Coton Sport goalkeeper Loic Feudjou respects Ahly, who have been crowned African champions a record seven times.
“They are a good, well-organised team and dangerous at set pieces, but we fear no side at this stage of the competition.
“Our goal is obvious -- to win the match and gain an advantage before taking our good away record to Cairo,” he said.
The return matches are scheduled for November 19 and 20 with the winners advancing to the two-leg final of a competition carrying a $1.5 million first prize. – AFP