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Orlando Pirates braced for a red-letter day when taking on Libya’s blue-eyed boys Al-Ittihad

Orlando Pirates habe a tough assignment against Al-Ittihad. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Orlando Pirates habe a tough assignment against Al-Ittihad. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Published Feb 19, 2022

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Cape Town - Orlando Pirates are hoping to make it a red-letter day when they play the blue-eyed boys of Libyan football, Al-Ittihad, in a CAF Confederation Cup Group B clash at the Martyrs of February Stadium, in Benghazi, on Sunday evening.

The Libyan Football Federation are so passionate about Al-Ittihad, their reigning league champions, that they have suspended their domestic to allow the team to prepare intensely for their Confederation Cup opener. Al-Ittihad last played at the end of January.

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Pirates, on the other hand, have made an auspicious start to their Confederation Cup with a well-taken 2-0 win over the crack Algerian side JS Saoura in Orlando last weekend. Their impressive performance was a far cry from their dismal form that earned them dull draws in half of their DStv Premiership matches. The 10 draws include a few goalless stalemates as well.

A win in Benghazi on Sunday will consolidate Pirates' position as Group B log-leaders. It will also boost the confidence in the squad that have been strengthened by players returning from lengthy injury-enforced lay-offs. One of them is midfielder Thembinkosi Lorch, who is growing in stature since returning to the side three weeks ago. He had a hand in both Pirates' goals against JS Saoura last week.

Pirates co-coaches Mandla Ncikazi and Fadlu Davids who have taken over the reins since the departure of head coach Josef Zinnbauer in August last year are both excited that players have regained fitness.

“This is the first time [in two seasons] where we have 95 to 98% player availability,” said Davids. “Everyone is back, and you could see a difference in the training sessions.

"Everybody is fighting for a place, and in the first round [of the Premiership] we did not have that. A lot of players were not available, and the team is moving in the right direction."

The player availability, the form of Lorch and last week's morale-boosting performance in the Confed Cup opener all provide the elements for a red-letter day. Another convincing performance will stir memories of their 2015 Confed Cup campaign when they finished runner-up.

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Another factor that has promoted a feel-good vibe in the Pirates camp is the match venue, the Martyrs of February Stadium in Benghazi. Davids said it will be the first time Pirates will face the Libyan champs, but the team is familiar with the match venue.

“It is a very tough opponent that we are going to face," said Davids. "What is good is that we are going to the same stadium where we played last season against Al-Ahly Benghazi.

“So, we know where we are going and what type of pitch we are going to play. It is just now finalising the finer details of the team, how they play and how we can approach the game.

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“But it will be a tough game coming up.”

The make-up of the team has been a sore point with Pirates fans of late. They are angry with the treatment meted out to striker Frank Mhango. He has not been cracking the selection nod despite several good performances for Malawi at the recent African Cup of Nations.

Mhango is in the tour party, and he'll likely be given a run on Sunday.

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The dangermen in Al-Ittihad's side are the striking duo of Salem Roma and Mohamed Zaabia, two goalmouth predators of note.

In the middle of the park, they have Tunisian international Ghazi Ayabi pulling the strings and making sure scoring chances emerge in the striking zone.

@Herman_Gibbs

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