JOHANNESBURG – Fresh from guiding his troops to the quarter-finals of the Telkom Knockout competition, Orlando Pirates coach Rhulani Mokwena cut an excited figure but spoke with circumspect after beating Stellenbosch 1-0.
On Saturday night, the Sea Robbers got a much-needed breather from their torrid times with the victory to qualify for the last eight of the competition.
In a season that was meant to be about redemption and appeasing ‘the Ghost’ following a two-year rebuilding phase, Pirates have come across as flat, especially following the resignation of Micho Sredojevic.
Their biggest issue has been their leaky defence but with the Telkom Knockout encounter played following a three-week break, Mokwena admitted that they had a chance to work on some of their defensive problems, while the inability to convert their numerous chances against Stellies is a challenge they need to continue working on.
“I’ll never throw my players under the bus. I am proud of the Pirates players, they are honest and do the best that they can,” Mokwena said.
“We’ll go back and practice more and more, keep improving the team because that’s what we always try to do. And that’s our focus. We’ll continue to work hard on the training pitch. Two very important pillars in our team are hard-work and preparation. We are creating chances, but people have been talking about conceding goals, so can we congratulate the team about keeping a clean sheet.”
French-born goalkeeper Joris Delle, who had conceded eight goals in the last three matches, has taken his fair share of the blame for Pirates' defensive woes, but against Stellies, last season’s No 1 Wayne Sandilands returned between the sticks, keeping a clean sheet and pleasing The Ghost, who wanted him back in goal.
However, Mokwena says he can’t guarantee that Saturday’s encounter marked the shot-stopper’s permanent return between the sticks, citing that the team selects players based on merit, not popularity.
“With regards to our selection, we’ve got a certain criterion that we use. It’s not just Wayne Sandilands. We look at, obviously, form and mediocrity. And whoever deserves to play based on what we see at training,” he said.
“We take it one game at a time, be it a cup or league game. We always try to put the best team on the pitch for that match.”
Much of the credit for Pirates’ victory against Stellenbosch should also go to Thembinkosi Lorch, who’s lone strike in the last 10 minutes of the game ensured that they took one step closer to ending their five-year trophy drought.
Lorch has come under criticism recently, having failed to replicate the form that saw him being crowned the best Footballer in the Premier Soccer League last term.
Mokwena also acknowledged the dip in form by the Bafana Bafana international, but he’s stressed that his talisman has been pulling his weight.