Orlando Pirates kick off their CAF Champions League group stage against AC Leopards of Congo. Pirates were drawn in what looks to be the tougher of the two four-team groups. Joining them in Group A are Egyptian powerhouses Al Ahly and Zamalek. So nothing less than a win will be expected when they host the Congolese League champions at Orlando Stadium.
To Win (90mins)
Orlando Pirates 13/20
AC Leopards 26/10
Pirates returned from Lesotho on Monday where they beat Matlama FC 5-1 in a warm-up encounter, with the form of new signing Lennox Bacela from Bloemfontein Celtic particularly satisfying. Bacela and a fully-fit Sifiso Myeni, now over a lengthy injury problem, both scored twice as the Buccaneers cruised to a comfortable victory. Ndumiso Mabena added a fifth before the hosts got a consolation goal. Pirates have exceeded expectations by getting into the group stages of the Champions League. They started the preliminary knockout stages with a 9-0 aggregate win over the Comoros champions Djabal. They then played Zambian champions Zanaco and won 1-0 away and 2-1 at home. In the final round of qualifying for the group stages they faced 2009 and 2010 African champions TP Mazembe. They won 3-1 in the first leg and held onto that lead in DRC by losing 1-0 in a match full of controversial refereeing decisions against them. Influential captain Lucky Lekgwathi will miss the match. The 36-year old is serving a suspension for the red card which he received in Lubumbashi when the Buccaneers played against TP Mazembe.
AC Leopards arrived in South Africa this week in winning form and with plenty of match practice under their belts. While Pirates fans will have fears that their side could be ring rusty as they work their way back from their holidays, Leopards are in the middle of their season and in a confident mood ahead of Saturday’s match. At the weekend they went through to the quarter-finals of the Congo Cup with an easy 3-0 home win over TP Mystere. Leopards are also league leaders in the Congo, three points clear at the top of the standings at the halfway mark of the season, having won 12 and lost just two of their 17 matches. Leopards have been a sensational new name on the African football circuit over the past 18 months, with first-ever qualification for the group phase of the Champions League this year, following hard on the heels of their unexpected success in last year’s African Confederation Cup. It was the first continental success for a side from Congo for almost 40 years as they beat Djoliba of Mali 4-3 on aggregate in the final. They also took domestic league and cup honours last year, their league success being their first.
In February, Leopards played in the African Super Cup in Cairo and ran the Champions League holders Al Ahli close for the title. They started their Champions League campaign this season with a 2-1 aggregate win over Gabon’s CF Mounana in the preliminary round. They won 2-0 at home but lost 1-0 away. They then faced Nigerian champions Kano Pillars and progressed to the final round of qualifying after penalty shootouts. They lost 4-1 in Nigeria but managed to overturn that deficit at home with a 3-0 win. They then faced Algerian champions ES Setif in the last 16 and after winning 3-1 at home again lost on the road, 3-1, but managed to advance to the group stages with another penalty shootout win. Leopards, nicknamed “Les Fauves du Niari” (the Niari Wild Beasts) had nine players in the recent Congo squad for their African Nations Championship qualifier against their neighbours from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have two imports from DR Congo in Ntela Kalema and Eric Niemba as well as striker Arouna Drame from Mali, a giant at more than two metres tall.
VERDICT: Orlando Pirates 13/20
Pirates hold a big advantage playing at home in a sold out Orlando Stadium. Leopards have lost all three away matches en route to qualifying for this stage of the tournament. Pirates have won all three of their home matches and are tipped for another inspired win here.