Orlando Pirates’ extraordinary run to the African Champions League final has taken so many twists and turns that it is truly impossible to predict what could happen in the final take.
Yet one of the lower-risk bets for the two-legged game against Al Ahly is that if the Egyptian giants get a penalty, Senzo Meyiwa will save it. The 2013 Champions League has been a true coming-of-age tournament for the 26-year-old shot-stopper.
He has turned in a series of outstanding displays in goal, that has included keeping out a staggering three spot kicks. His performance against TP Mazembe in Lubumbashi in the final qualifying round was the stuff of legend, keeping out two penalties, as Pirates somehow made it to the group stages.
And then, against Al Ahly in the group stages in El Gouna, Meyiwa repelled another penalty as the Buccaneers romped to a 3-0 victory away from home, perhaps their standout result of the tournament so far.
“It was a great experience for me when I look back at the games we have played until the final,” said Meyiwa this week.
“Against Mazembe and Al Ahly, those penalties, it is a great memory. Now I need to wrap it up and make sure we get a second star.”
Meyiwa was just eight years old when the Buccaneers got that first “star”, winning the Champions League in 1995.
“I have seen videos of (William) Okpara making great saves and (Jerry) Sikhosana … scoring a great goal,” said Meyiwa.
The Pirates goalkeeper added that the side has been given advice during this tournament by Sikhosana, who scored the goal in Abidjan that handed Pirates the ’95 title.
“I think early this year we spoke to Sikhosana. He was telling most of the guys what to expect … that is why some guys have been doing well, with motivation from those players,” said Meyiwa.
It’s been 18 years since a South African side, for the first and only time, lifted the ultimate continental club trophy, and Pirates will do well to double their own and their country’s tally against an Egyptian powerhouse tomorrow.
Al Ahly have won this title a record seven times, and even though they got just a point off the Buccaneers in the group stages, Mohamed Yousef’s side have to be favourites to pick up number eight, particularly with the second leg in Cairo.
Ahly have had to deal with political turmoil in their country, which has led to the cancellation of the Egyptian domestic league for the past two years. Yet that did not stop the Red Devils last year, as they still won the Champions League, beating Esperance in the final. Make no mistake, this is a side that knows how to win the crucial games.
This year’s final will also provide a send-off for Egyptian footballing legend Mohamed Aboutrika, who has already starred for Al Ahly in four Champions League triumphs.
“I know Aboutrika. He is the best player in Africa and now this is his last tournament, so he will want to make sure he wins,” said Meyiwa.
“But Pirates have great players, a good team, a good team spirit. I think on Saturday it is do or die and we need to make sure we do our best.”
A victory of any sorts in Orlando would give Pirates a great fillip to take to the Egyptian capital, though they also showed in the semi-final against Esperance that even a goalless draw is not the worst result.
“Winning is going to be important but, most of all, we must make sure that we don’t concede,” said Meyiwa.
And in that regard, as the last line of defence, and in fantastic form, Meyiwa is likely to have a major role to play. When Pirates did the domestic double-treble between 2010 and 2012, Meyiwa was pretty much always second in line in the goalkeeping ranks to Moeneeb Josephs.
Now he must be one of the first names on Roger De Sa’s teamsheet and he would be very much at the head of any Champions League triumph.
“It is very important (for me),” he said. “I used to see my role model, Iker Casillas, lifting the (Uefa) Champions League.
“I want to do the same (in Africa). I have a chance, and I must make sure I grab it and make history.”
Pirates Players to watch:
Age – 26
Position – Goalkeeper
Meyiwa has been arguably the star name in Pirates’ Champions League run this year, producing some spectacular saves, including stopping three spot kicks. His most memorable match came against TP Mazembe in the final qualifying round for the group stages, where he saved two penalties. Since then, he has been at the heart of a Pirates side that has conceded just five goals in eight games in the group stages and the semi-finals.
Age – 25
Position – winger/playmaker
Myeni, with three goals, is Pirates’ top scorer in the 2013 Champions League who is still playing for the club. (Zimbabwean Takesure Chinyama has five, but has left.) The talented attacking midfielder, who can play on the wing, or behind the main striker, scored against both Al Ahly and Zamalek in the group stages, and if his form has dipped a little of late, he could just rise to the big occasion in Orlando tomorrow.
AL AHLY players to watch:
Age – 34
Position – Attacking midfielder/striker
A true genius of the continental game, Aboutrika was a star of the Pharaohs side that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 and 2008. At club level, he has resisted European offers to stay at Al Ahly, with whom he has won four Champions League titles and seven Egyptian league titles since joining in 2004. He has announced that he will retire at the end of this year, and must be determined to go out of Champions League football in style against Pirates.
Age – 28
Position – Attacking midfielder
Another skilful playmaker in the Al Ahly side, Soliman scored the goal that proved decisive in the Champions League final last year, Ahly’s second of a 2-1 win in Tunis, that gave them a 3-2 aggregate win over Esperance. In this year’s Champions League, he has already scored three times, though he did also miss a penalty against Pirates in the group stages in El Gouna.