Saleng inspires Pirates to secure berth in MTN8 final with thumping win over rivals Sundowns
Can Mamelodi Sundowns survive without their talisman striker Peter Shalulile?
And can Orlando Pirates, who are celebrating their 85th anniversary, go on to dominate the 2022-2023 season with their sensation winger-cum-striker Monnapule Saleng?
These are the two questions that emerged as the Brazilians lost a chance to defend their MTN8 trophy when they were thrashed 3-0 by Saleng’s inspired Pirates in the second leg semifinal which was played in front of the capacity crowd at the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane on Saturday.
Former Sundowns striker Kermit Erasmus, the man the Brazilians' bench deemed surplus to requirements at Chloorkop in September, headed Pirates into an early lead after benefiting from a sublime supply from his in-form strike partner Saleng.
The left-footed Saleng completed Pirates’ victory with a magnificent second-half brace, his late goals coming against a run of play when Sundowns were desperately pushing for an equaliser.
Having scored his first brace against Golden Arrows in a midweek league match, it was Saleng’s turn to let Erasmus take the thunder in Saturday's match.
Shalulile’s absence in the Sundowns line-up is still mired in speculation as Sundowns co-coaches Manqoba Mngqithi and Rulani Mokwena provided no clear picture of the type of injury the Namibian, who was not even on the bench in Saturday's match, is suffering.
Playing with skipper Themba Zwane, Gaston Sirino and Marcelo Allende, Sundowns lacked a focal point and they made it easy for the Pirates defence to deal with their attacks.
Sundowns clearly missed Shalulile’s presence in the opposition box.
That Sundowns failed to find goals demonstrated that there’s been an overreliance on the Namibian marksman who’s been Sundowns’ and the league’s top scorer in the past two seasons.
Sundowns had Gift Motupa and Cassius Mailula on the bench as attackers but the introduction of Motupa alongside Neo Maema for Sirino and Sphelele Mkhulise in the second half made no real difference.
Credit should go to Pirates' defence and combative midfielder Miguel Timm who ensured the home side is not getting as many chances to test Siyabonga Mpontshane in Bucs’ goals.
Pirates coach Jose Riveiro’s decision to fortify his midfield with Goodman Mosele and Ben Motshwari in the second half is also a clear indication he wanted to curb the threat of Maema and Zwane as Sundowns were pushing hard to get the equaliser.
While Pirates were packing their defence, Sundowns coaches responded by adding Thapelo Morena to play with Motupa upfront while withdrawing defensive midfielder Mothobi Mvala, whose use was now limited as the game shifted more and more to the Pirates danger area.
Pirates' attack in the first stanza concentrated on the right where Saleng gave Sundowns left-back Aubrey Modiba a lot of trouble, including the winning goal which came after the Bucs’ striker skinned Modiba and cut inside before laying the ball to Erasmus for an easy tap in.
Finding goals in this match was always going to be a tall order for Sundowns as they needed to score two to have a chance to win this match after the 0-0 score in the first-leg tie in Orlando where the Brazilians, with Shalulile present, failed to have a single shot on target.
The win is a huge boost for Pirates and their Spanish coach Riveiro ahead of the Soweto derby against Kaizer Chiefs at the FNB Stadium on Saturday.
Chiefs are also the same side Pirates may meet in the final of this competition in Durban on November 5.
But to go through Amakhosi will have to find goals in Durban against AmaZulu on Sunday after playing 1-1 draw at home in the first leg.
Mamelodi Sundowns (0) 0
Orlando Pirates (1) 3
Scorers: Pirates — Kermit Erasmus (8m), Monnapule Saleng (82m, 90m)