Johannesburg – Lucky Lekgwathi will return to the Orlando Pirates line-up this weekend when they take on Tunisian giants Esperance in the African Champions League semi-final second leg, the Buccaneers skipper bolstering the squad after missing four games in a row.
Pirates take with a precarious 0-0 scoreline from the first leg to Tunis, needing a win or a score draw at the Stade Olympique Rades (8pm SA time) to progress to the continental club championship final for the second time in their history.
After ignoring veteran Lekgwathi for four successive games due to a combination of rest, family commitments and riling the club’s hierarchy, the captain will now board a plane headed for Tunis via Dubai on Wednesday night.
“Whether he plays or not will depend on the coach, of course, but yes, I submitted a visa application for him, like I did for the rest of the team. So he will be in the team travelling to Tunisia,” Pirates administrator Floyd Mbele confirmed.
Lekgwathi last played in Pirates’ 0-0 draw against Al-Ahly on September 22, sitting out the MTN8 Soweto Derby against Kaizer Chiefs two days later, and the final on September 28. It was after this final, which Pirates lost to Platinum Stars on penalties, that Lekgwathi wrote a critical column in the Daily Sun, alleging “sinister forces at the club” had told coach Roger de Sa not to select him.
That apparently angered the Pirates top brass, and he was consequently left out of the team who faced Esperance in the first leg at Orlando, and Bucs’ last match away to Mpumalanga Black Aces in the Telkom Knockout, although the club’s spin doctors said his absence was mainly due to family bereavements.
But whether the veteran defender upset them or not, Bucs can certainly do with Lekgwathi’s experience this week, not least after Siyabonga Sangweni suffered a severe Achilles Tendon injury last week.
Sangweni will miss at least 12 weeks of action, according to the Pirates medical team, leaving De Sa with just Lekgwathi, Ayanda Gcaba and Rooi Mahamutsa as his notable central defenders.
Midfielder Thandani Ntshumayelo, who limped off at halftime against Aces, is also set to make the trip to Tunis after a scan revealed an injury he suffered last week was not as serious as initially feared.
Pirates, meanwhile, will be relieved to hear that only 25 000 tickets will be available to fans attending Saturday’s match at Esperance’s Rades cauldron, which normally sits up to 65 000 spectators.
That should mean a less intimidating environment for De Sa’s team, who were also spared from hostile crowds in Egypt in the earlier rounds due to stadium lockouts triggered by political strife in north Africa.
Another relief for Pirates is that the match takes place at night (7pm Tunisian time), when temperatures will have cooled down.
But Bucs face a tough challenge upon their return next week, when they have to play against Golden Arrows in the Knockout next Wednesday and take on Chiefs in the Absa Premiership derby three days later, which will be Bucs’ third league match of the season.
Pirates will arrive in Tunis on Thursday afternoon ahead of Saturday’s match, and Mbele said they’ll try to leave the north African country as early as possible to prepare for next week’s games.
“At this stage our return flight gets to South Africa on Monday afternoon, but we are trying to change that because we have two games next week,” he said.
Saturday: Esperance v Pirates, Stade Olympique Rades, 8pm SA time
Telkom Knockout quarter-finals
Saturday: SuperSport v Swallows, Lucas Moripe Stadium, 3pm; Platinum Stars v Sundowns, Moruleng, 7pm
Sunday: FS Stars v Chiefs, Charles Mopeli Stadium, 3pm