With only eight teams remaining in the competition, the two sides that progress from the group will move straight into the last four of the tournament, and one step closer to the ultimate round.
A victory at their home ground may put their progression to the semis beyond doubt, depending on the outcome of the Zamalek – AC Leopards encounter, while a Sfaxien win would give the three-time winners of the second-tier continental club championship a chance of producing a comeback in the final two games at the last eight. This is a must win for the Sfax-based team.
The disappointment of losing to Egyptian giants, Al Ahly in the final of the CAF Champions League in 2013 is still fresh in the memories of many Buccaneers’ players, and the determination in the Pirates camp to cancel out that disappointment is visible in the way that they train, as the players work hard with a steely look in their eyes.
Injuries threaten to derail the good form that Pirates have managed in their campaign, defeating AC Leopards and Sfaxien away on either side of a narrow home defeat to Zamalek.
Defender Thabo Matlaba is out until the beginning of September after suffering a hamstring injury, while veteran Rooi Mahamutsa is another member of the back line who is unavailable for the Sfaxien match through injury.
In addition to the injured defenders, the ‘Sea Robbers’ have doubts hanging over some of their strikers, with Thamsanqa Gabuza and Kermit Erasmus struggling to shake off fresh injury issues to be fit for Saturday's game. They may not be available, which would leave the South Africans in a tough position.
Pirates coach Eric Tinkler will hope that his team can follow up their 1-0 away victory against Sfaxien last week with a similar result in front of their fans, but is concerned about the number of injured players he is contending with and the potential for fatigue to creep into the squad.
“Thabo Matlaba has a Grade Two (2) tear to his hamstring,” Tinkler revealed. “He is going to be out for a month. That’s confirmed. I can’t change that. Kermit (Erasmus) went to do a scan, it’s a hamstring strain. That can take up to anything from five days to a week. We are not too sure if he will be available for Sfaxien. I am hoping that (Thamsanqa) Gabuza also only has a strain and not a tear.”
Pirates faced rivals Kaizer Chiefs in a domestic preseason clash dubbed ‘Carling Black Label Cup’ last weekend, winning the title through a penalty shootout before losing 1-0 against Ajax Cape Town on Tuesday night, crashing out of the annual top-eight competition.
This hectic schedule coupled with the CAF Confederation Cup is the reason why Tinkler referenced fatigue, which is playing an important part at a stage when the Premier Soccer League is days away from returning to South African pitches for the 2015-16 season.
“Fatigue is a major concern for me. We have tried to rest the players as much as possible. Our fixtures don't help us,” the coach added.
“It’s good that we continue playing and that the players have that match fitness, but at the same time fatigue will be catching up with us. We won’t let playing in Africa hinder our preparations for the local season ahead.”
In contrast, the Tunisians have lost a number of key players to European and Asian clubs recently, which has added pressure to their already small squad. Ferdjani Sassi joined Metz, Boussam Boulabi made his way to Hangzhou Greentown and Didier Ndong transferred to Lorient, while Fakhreddine Ben Youssef is now at rival club Esperance. These departures have destabilised the Sfax-based team, and they are not firing on all cylinders at the moment.
Coach Paulo Duarte’s job at the Tunisian club is at risk following calls from supporters for his head, but the Portuguese tactician has publically complained that he cannot do what is expected of him against the continent’s best without the proper depth in his squad.
The Buccaneers’ defence has been a pillar of strength in the continental competition, allowing the side to return home on two occasions with 1-0 victories over Tunisian and Congolese opposition, and at home they will need to produce a similar defensively sound performance to keep a desperate Sfaxien at bay.
CSS have a great record as the most successful club in the competition, having won the Confederations Cup title on three occasions, but if they do not secure a victory in Johannesburg this weekend and turn things around drastically in the following two games, they will not have the opportunity to add to that record this year.