Orlando Pirates have received a huge and unexpected boost ahead of their Caf Confederation Cup group stage campaign after their final opponent in the pool was revealed on Sunday.
The long-awaited second leg of the play-off tie between last year’s beaten finalists JS Kabylie and Royal Leopards of Eswatini was played in Tizi Ouzou and against the odds it was the latter who advanced.
The match had been postponed three times for travel and Covid-19 reasons but has finally been completed and it is Leopards who will join another Algerian side, JS Saoura, and Libyan outfit Al Ittihad in Pirates’ Group B. It has huge significance on and off the pitch for The Buccaneers. It means they will be spared an arduous — and expensive — third trip to North Africa in the group stages, and will instead only need to make a short hop across the border to Manzini in Eswatini.
That will save both time and money in what is a compact fixture list in second half of the season.
It should also make the scouting of their opponents easier with the many links between the club and Eswatini providing plenty of eyes to feed back information on how they play. And while Leopards have clearly displayed their ability to compete with big clubs, on paper they do not pose the same kind of threat as Kabylie, who were edged in last season’s Confederation Cup final by Moroccan outfit Raja Casablanca.
Leopards beat Kabylie 1-0 in the first leg of their play-off tie in November, and the return match was initially postponed from early December due to the emergence of the Omicron Covid-19 variant that meant the team were barred from travelling to North Africa.
A new date of January 26 was then set, but fate intervened again. The side were due to travel from Manzini to Johannesburg, then on to Addis Ababa, Cairo, Istanbul and finally Algiers for the match. But they got stuck in Egypt when an unusually heavy snowstorm closed the airport in Istanbul, blocking their path.
Kabylie claimed they should be declared the winners as Leopards had forfeited the match, but the Caf decided it was a case of force majeure and the second leg was moved to Sunday. Kabylie won 2-1, but Leopards advanced on the away-goals rule to seal a historic first appearance in the pool stages of a Caf club competition.
They had started the season in the Champions League and ousted top Zambian side Zesco United in the first round, before they were narrow 3-2 losers on aggregate to Angolan side Sagrada Esperança. That saw them drop into the Confederation Cup playoffs against Kabylie. They won the home leg of all three ties 1-0, which suggests they will be a tough nut to crack in Manzini.
Leopards have twice met South African opponents in the past. They lost 6-2 on aggregate to Mamelodi Sundowns in the 2007 Champions League but stunned Bidvest Wits in the first round of the Confederation Cup in 2015. Wits led 3-0 from the home leg, but coach Gavin Hunt fielded a severely weakened side for the return fixture and lost by the same scoreline. Leopards won 7-6 on penalties.
Pirates open their group-stage campaign on Sunday at home to Saoura.