JOHANNESBURG – Orlando Pirates shook off their midweek disappointment to go back on track on Saturday night in their Absa Premiership challenge with an outside chance of snatching the trophy that Mamelodi Sundowns already have one hand on.
Pirates wrapped up a 2-1 win against Maritzburg United at Orlando Stadium with their hearts in their mouths, as the lads from the KwaZulu-Natal capital put the hosts under pressure towards the end to expose the cracks in the Buccaneers’ armour.
The Soweto side is still far from a finished project, which makes winning the league title a wild shot for a team which doesn’t have the ruthless streak that makes champions.
Pirates lost 3-0 to Ajax Cape Town on Wednesday despite dominating that match, lacking the killer instinct that would have translated that dominance into goals.
That led to coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic calling on his players to bounce back from that defeat and show the material they’re made of.
They did just that on Saturday against the Team of Choice, showing the good – more energy and determination – and the bad, a nervous finish due to silly mistakes.
A heavy downpour, accompanied by thunder and lightning, hit the venue just before both teams warmed up.
It made the pitch greasy, which was good for the carpet football that Pirates and Maritzburg enjoy. But it also meant that the pitch was a bit on the slippery side, needing defenders to be alert.
Sredojevic started with a cautious line-up as he didn’t want goals to rain into the Buccaneers’ net.
The Serbian started with five defenders in a flexible line-up that meant they defended and attacked in numbers, with wingbacks Innocent Maela and Mthokozisi Dube contributing in both departments.
Maela and Dube pushed high up, confident that they can recover quickly thanks to their pace to guard against the Team of Choice’s deadly counter-attack game with a speedy attack.
Both teams cancelled each other out as they played similar formations, but it was the Buccaneers who had most of the ball.
The Team of Choice were more enterprising when they had the ball.
Bevan Fransman was back for Maritzburg to anchor their three-man defence, the stingiest in the league with the best defensive record before the start of this match.
Fransman and company aren’t easily beaten. The Buccaneers needed something special to beat them.
Thabiso Kutumela produced just that with a clever free kick straight from the training ground.
Three Pirates players – Luvuyo Memela, Justin Shonga and Dube – stood between the ball and Maritzburg’s wall, facing Kutumela.
That trio ducked down just before Kutumela unleashed a thunderbolt that goalkeeper Richard Ofori only saw just before it hit the back of the net.
The Ghanaian goalkeeper was again left stunned by Happy Jele’s header from Memela’s corner at the start of the second half.
The two-goal cushion gave the Buccaneers more confidence, especially as they looked to bounce back from the defeat to Ajax on Wednesday.
But that confidence was tinged with complacency as it allowed the visitors to come back into the match.
Jackson Mabokgwane looked shaky in the Buccaneers’ goal despite spending the better part of the match untested.
The pressure from the Team of Choice paid off, with Siyanda Xulu pulling one back with a header from Deolin Mekoa’s free kick.
But the Buccaneers held on to take three points that pushed them to second place – five points behind leaders Sundowns.