JOHANNESBURG – Orlando Pirates were thrown a curveball before they and coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic left the country for their shot at redemption this afternoon at Stade El Menzah against Esperance in the CAF Champions League.
The Buccaneers’ trips to Tunisia are a source of joy and sadness.
The last time Pirates visited Esperance, they broke Tunisian hearts by eliminating the three-time African champions in the semifinal of the 2013 Champions League. Seven years before that, Pirates and Sredojevic, in his first spell at the club, were the ones with broken hearts after CS Sfaxien eliminated them in the semifinals of the 2006 Champions League.
But it’s 2015 that hurt the Buccaneers the most. With a chance to become South Africa’s first club to win the Champions League and the CAF Confederation Cup, Etoile du Sahel spoiled the party and drowned the Sea Robbers in the final of the continent’s second biggest club competition. That defeat had a domino effect that saw Pirates flirt with relegation two seasons ago.
Sredojevic was sent an SOS call by Pirates’ chairman Irvin Khoza. The Serbian, who describes himself as a Pirates fan first before he is their coach, heeded the call and went about restoring pride back into his beloved club.
This afternoon he has an opportunity to rewrite wrongs of the past in the Buccaneers’ biggest test since Sredojevic took over.
The Tunisians might be hosting Pirates in an empty stadium, due to their supporters’ bad behaviour in the last edition of the Champions League, but this will still be a tough mental test even if there are no lasers to blind them. Esperance have already rattled the Buccaneers in an attempt to put them off.
“It is a bit unfortunate that we had planned to play (Esperance) at 9pm and since they saw that we were playing (Kaizer) Chiefs (during the afternoon on Saturday), they changed the time of the kick off (to the afternoon),” Sredojevic said. “We had to travel, recover, have a training session and then play the match with the highest ambition.”
The Buccaneers left for Tunis immediately after the Soweto Derby to acclimatise, leaving Johannesburg’s heat for Tunisia’s winter. That (weather change) will take a toll on the players, along with the emotional and physical toll the Soweto Derby took on them.
However, the positive is that the intensity of the derby prepared them well for what they will face against Esperance.
☠ @ESTuniscom vs @orlandopirates
🌍 @CAF_Online Champions League 2018/19 Group Stages
📅 Today, 12 February 2019
🏟 Stade El Menzah
🕒 15h00 SAST
⚫⚪🔴⭐#CAFCL #Matchday#OnceAlways pic.twitter.com/MASX0SXrsP
— Orlando Pirates FC (@orlandopirates) February 12, 2019
The Buccaneers and the Tunisian giants are favourites to finish in the top two of Group B to book a place in the quarterfinals. Achieving that would move Sredojevic a step closer in his quest of re-awakening the sleeping giants he found on its knees – bruised and battered from a draining 2015/16 season where they finished 11th.
Sredojevic has improved the team dramatically since that season, but the work still continues. He has to bring silverware with the honeymoon period almost over. Apart from competing in the Champions League, the Buccaneers are also involved in the Absa Premiership race.
“With 11 matches to go (in the league), 33 points to play for, in every single match we want to give our best,” Sredojevic said. “It will not be easy.
Looking at the players that we have and the character that they have shown, we have an element of confidence that things will be better than they were.”
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