JOHANNESBURG – Luvuyo Memela came off the bench to send Orlando Pirates to the summit of the Premiership log as they salvaged a late 1-1 draw against Bloemfontein Celtic at a cold Orlando Stadium on Tuesday night.
The result ensured that Pirates leapfrogged Mamelodi Sundowns, who lost 2-1 to third-placed Cape Town City at Athlone Stadium, on goal difference.
The Bucs’ illusion of warming up to the contest when they are trailing will be at their own peril if they don’t hit the top gear from the outset.
That nearly became the case here on Tuesday night, when Tshepo Rikhotso gifted the visitors with the only goal of the first half – following a scramble in the Pirates box from a corner.
Nonetheless, the Bucs will now turn their focus to continental football as they welcome FC Platinum in the second last match of the Caf Champions League group stage at Orlando Stadium on Friday – knowing that a win will pull them closer to the knockout stages.
But if this performance is anything to go by, they should use the next two days to inject some zest into the trio upfront – Thembinkosi Lorch, Augustine Mulenga and Justin Shonga.
The trio, who are usually Pirates’ knights in shining armour, looked far from their best as they could barely link up or exploit spaces against a stubborn Celtic defence that stood firm.
This was despite their key member Wandisile Letlabika, who suffered a concussion in their last match against Sundowns, being unavailable.
But the Bucs were bound to find their going tough, considering that their usual engine room only had one of its three constituents in Musa Nyatama.
Xola Mlambo was on the bench, and Ben Motshwari was out injured after suffering an injury against Golden Arrows.
Abel Mabaso, who was brought in as Motshwari’s replacement, looked sharp on the ball, but lacked the decisive effect that could split Siwelele’s defence.
As a result, with Pirates chasing an equaliser, Mabaso was forced to play the far right role, while Lorch played a supportive role behind Shonga and Lorch.
That brought the necessary resurgence from the home side, as they took the game to Celtic.
That nearly paid off immediately as the visitors were all over the show and making reckless tackles outside the box, which saw Pirates finding acres of space.
⚫⚪🔴⭐— Orlando Pirates FC (@orlandopirates) March 5, 2019
FT || @orlandopirates 1-1 @Bloem_Celtic
🥅 Memela 80’
They certainly left it late but were always knocking on the door. Memela’s return proving vital as his all important equalizer fires the Bucs to the top of the table
☠🍀☠🍀☠#AbsaPrem #OnceAlways pic.twitter.com/tIxiMctgYq
In the 72nd minute, the home side were awarded a free kick just outside the 18-area, and Shonga sent in a delightful shot that forced Patrick Tignyemb into a low save.
With time their enemy, Micho Sredojevic introduced Thabo Qalinge, whose reception was met with a standing ovation, for Mabaso and Luvuyo Memela for Mulenga.
The duo did their bit to add to what was starting to become a confident Pirates’ attack, and Memela finally made the breakthrough for his team in the last 10 minutes.@Mihlalibaleka