JOHANNESBURG — Orlando Pirates embark on their African Champions League adventure today with a credible chance of becoming continental champions at the end of the year.
Bucs, having looked most efficient in emerging from a taxing preliminary round programme, begin their Group A campaign with a home match against the unknown AC Leopards from Congo Brazza-ville at Orlando Stadium.
The two teams share their group with Cairo giants Al Ahly and Zamalek, whom they will meet over the next month.
Ordinarily the Egyptian pair would pose a difficult hurdle, but Egyptian football is in a crisis that mirrors the country’s political turmoil.
The two sides have been severely affected by defections of both playing and coaching staff.
Pirates can determine their own fortune, but it depends heavily on how they emerge for the new campaign after a long and bruising last campaign in which their fatigue was all too obvious.
Bucs relied too heavily on Oupa Manyisa, Andile Jali, Daine Klate, Happy Jele and veteran Lucky Lekgwathi to deliver match after match last season. That stretched the players to their limits.
They were all playing on empty tanks by the start of May and will not have had much of a holiday after being forced to return early for pre-season training because of the start of the Champions League two weeks before the Premier Soccer League season gets under way.
The failure of management to inject significant new blood could come back to haunt the club.
It is likely Siyabonga Sangweni will not regain full fitness given his persistent knee problems.
Also, upfront the club have turned to unproved Lennox Bacela in a position where they struggled last season.
Pirates are arguably the most talented among the last eight clubs contesting the Champions League and must be fancied to finish in the top two placings and advance to the semifinals.
But the key will be for the South African side to win all three of their home matches, starting tomorrow against the Congolese.
This is Leopards’ debut in the league phase after impressive wins over Algerian and Nigerian opposition in the knockout rounds.
Should Pirates win against the Congolese and collect maximum points against Zamalek in their next home game in mid-August, that would mean a minimum six out of nine points by the time they reach the halfway mark of the league campaign.