JOHANNESBURG – It could have been worse. It should have been worse. But thanks to some brilliant goalkeeping by Wayne Sandilands, the Buccaneers’ first regulation defeat in 28 matches was by just two goals.
Their two defeats in that period had been via penalty shootouts.
In an empty Stade El Menza in Tunis, Pirates’ inability to defend set pieces should have seen them lose this Caf Champions League Group B match by a handful of goals.
It took the brilliance of Sandilands to ensure that Esperance’s ascent to the summit of the group was via a single strike.
That goal came early in the game via a cleverly worked free kick that clearly caught Pirates by surprise.
With the Pirates wall anticipating the ball to be shot high above them into the box, Esperance instead cut it low.
Incredibly, Arcine Badri was allowed to peel off the wall and get to the ball unmarked. He had the easiest of chances slotting home past a helpless Sandilands, although the defending was diabolical.
Esperance taking the lead was no surprise as, for the first 25 minutes the Buccaneers hardly got a look in.
As early as the fifth minute, the African champions from Tunisia forced a good save out of Sandilands from a set piece.
While the visitors from South Africa launched their own attack almost immediately and forced a corner from which they got another one that was the only real threat for home side in the first half.
There was very little improvement in the way Pirates defended and that they went to the break merely a goal down was thanks to the brilliance of Sandilands, who pulled off no less than three good saves.
One was a good block of a shot on 18 minutes which was followed by a fantastic one two minutes before the break after Esperance had cut through the Bucs’ defence like a hot knife through butter.
In between there were other close shaves with Pirates luckily escaping going 2-0 down on 22 minutes as another well worked Esperance attack ended up with Ghelani Chalali’s shot ricocheting off a defender.
Then, just before the half hour mark, Alfred Ndengane cleared off the line following yet another failure by Pirates to clear a set piece.
While Pirates eventually settled and enjoyed some moments of possession and a few forays into the opposition half, it was never the kind to trouble Esperance.
It was the same story in the second half with Esperance the dominant side in attack and Sandilands again having to come to Pirates’ rescue as they continued to give away set pieces.
On 53 minutes the Bucs keeper pulled off two quick fine saves to deny Mohamad Ali Yakoubi from scoring with headers from corners.
Three minutes later Sandilands denied Esperance a second goal when he blocked the ball in a one-on-one situation.
Another set piece on 68 minutes saw the Pirates defence caught flat-footed, allowing Coulibaly a free header.
But again Sandilands flung himself to the side and pushed the ball away from the target.
Then, with the match virtually over, Sandilands committed a rare error by leaving his line to try to fend off Badri.
But the striker crossed for Hathem Jouini to slot into an empty net and condemn Bucs to a very rare defeat in open play.
Esperance (1) 2
Badri 16, Jouini 89
Orlando Pirates (0) 0