Pirates reclaim second spot with a late winner against Leopards in Thohoyandou
Vincent Pule forced an injury-time own-goal from substitute Thabiso Mokoena as Orlando Pirates performed a smash and grab to defeat relegation-threatened Black Leopards at a packed Thohoyandou Stadium on Sunday.
Pule’s attempted cross floated in at the far post off substitute Mokoena's head to spark wild celebrations on the Pirates bench as they moved to within six points of Absa Premiership leaders Kaizer Chiefs, though they will have played a game more.
It is a sixth league win a row for The Buccaneers and will confirm their status as title challengers along with Chiefs, who they meet next on February 29 in what will be a massive game that could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title this season.
Pirates made four changes from the side that went out of the Nedbank Cup at the hands of Bidvest Wits last weekend, with Wayne Sandilands taking over from Joris Delle in goal.
Suspension to Fortune Makaringe meant that Linda Mntambo got a run, while Luvuyo Memela replaced Abel Mabaso.
Finally, this season's top-scorer Gabadinho Mhango returned from his suspension to take the place of Zakhele Lepasa.
Mhango should have scored inside eight minutes when the ball was put on a plate for him 10 yards from goal, but he failed to take the first-time shot and as the ball got caught in his feet, Leopards were able to deflect his eventual effort wide.
That was the best chance of the first half for Pirates, with Leopards creating a number of good opportunities themselves.
Former Pirates captain Thabo Matlaba should have opened the scoring against his former side as a Lesedi Kapinga's excellent ball over the top of The Buccaneers defence left Matlaba one-on-one with Sandilands, but he fired over without a defender in sight.
Then came a moment that will no doubt be replayed many times in the coming weeks as Sandilands pulled off a remarkable stop.
Edwin Gyimah's powerful point-blank header from a corner forced the goalkeeper into the save of the Premier Soccer League season so far, a magnificent one-handed effort to tip the ball over the bar.
Leopards were piling on the pressure and just before halftime, Mogakolodi Ngele's free-kick shaved the crossbar as the teams went into the break level at 0-0.
It was more of the same at the start of the second half as substitute Robert Ng’ambi had an excellent chance to put the home side ahead, but his effort was punched away by another fine stop from Sandilands.
Some excellent interplay saw Pule strike at goal from a tight angle, which was saved by Leopards goalkeeper Rotshidzwa Muleka, though the Pirates man might have rather looked for two unmarked teammates in the box.
Muleka then pulled off another good save to deny Thembinkosi Lorch’s header from a corner, before Zambian winger Austin Muwowo was introduced in the final 120 minutes for just his second Pirates appearance of the season.
It looked as though the victory would not come, until Pule’s moment of good fortune, but Pirates fans will care little as continue to shine under new German coach Josef Zinnbauer.