In defence, Edmilson Dove returned to replace the suspended Ebrahim Seedat, whilst on the left wing, it was Gift Links who started as Bradley Ralani was out injured.
In midfield, Teko Modise dropped to the bench with Christofer David starting as the number ten.
Zukile Kewuti got his 11th start of the season in midfield, whilst Keanu Cupido continued in central defence.
Siphelele Mthembu led the line in the absence of Kermit Erasmus, who was serving a ban.
Orlando Pirates went with their expected 4-2-3-1 formation as Marshall Munetsi continued in central defence with Alfred Ndengane out injured.
Mthokozisi Dube was at right-back again, whilst Luvuyo Memela played on the right-flank in preference to Augustine Mulenga.
PIRATES SHOCKED, BUT RESPOND
After falling behind in the first minute when Innocent Maela was caught on the ball, Pirates had the worst possible start against a Cape Town City side set up to have pace on the break in the wide areas through Links and Craig Martin.
It was the latter’s cross which led to the opener as Kewuti followed up to finish after Mthembu’s shot had been blocked and Munetsi failed to clear his lines.
Pirates’ response was strong as Thembinkosi Lorch, playing a very advanced role just behind Justin Shonga, nearly got onto Ben Motshwari’s ball over the top.
The early part of the game was characterised by City’s attacking setup.
Kewuti joined David in constantly supporting Mthembu, whilst Martin and Links were playing high and wide, not dropping back to aid their full-backs.
Mokeke was the lone deep-lying midfielder for City, and he was dictating affairs, receiving off the defence with ease, or motioning for Cupido to carry the ball forward when space presented itself in front of the centre-back.
Lorch was showing little interest in dropping onto Mokeke to prevent him getting on the ball, and instead focused his positioning on receiving the ball high up the pitch, or in the channels behind City’s attacking right-back, Thamsanqa Mkhize.
However, Mokeke was also being asked to cover a huge space defensively in midfield, and he went into the book for pulling back Memela and he was caught wrong-side of Memela again later in the half which led to Pule testing Leeuwenburgh with a powerful shot.
CUPIDO AND FIELIES EXCEL
With City not dropping their front players back to defend, it left plenty of space between-the-lines for Memela and Lorch to exploit.
The responsibility for stepping out to engage them fell on Cupido and Taariq Fielies, who were regularly pulled out of defence to make challenges.
The duo was doing an exceptional job in extremely demanding and high-risk roles. Both made several key interventions in the absence of any protection in front of them.
When the equaliser did come, it was the one first-half occasion where Cupido got his timing wrong. As the ball reached Shonga with Cupido tight, the Zambian offloaded to Nyatama and he found Lorch in the space Cupido had vacated. His left-footed finish put Pirates level.
The rest of the half went in a similar vein as Pirates looked to attack City’s back five, whilst City’s front five players, with Mkhize joining, looked to get at the Bucs backline.
It was an exciting, broken half of last-gasp blocks and clearances. The sheer speed of Martin was too threatening for Maela to risk forward runs, as any counters could see City’s speedster against Happy Jele in that channel.
The best chance before half-time came as Mkhize escaped Vincent Pule’s close attention and crossed to the back post for Kewuti to head wide.
The tall City midfielder was a real weapon arriving in the box with his physicality and he had isolated Dube for the chance.
PIRATES LEAD, THEN RETREAT
The start of the second half saw a small change from City, who dropped Kewuti deeper to assist Mokeke. Whereas he had not really shown for the ball off his defenders in the first period, Kewuti was now looking to get involved earlier in the build-up play.
Pirates had the ideal start to the half, taking less than five minutes to go 2-1 up. After a wide build-up involving Dube and Memela, the latter’s through ball for Lorch was missed by Cupido and after Leewenburgh’s save, Memela scored at the second attempt.
Bucs had easily got wrong side of City’s midfield again, and the central defenders were exposed. Cupido’s second error of the game led to the goal, but no defender can be expected to spend 90+ minutes defending in such a high-stakes, high-risk manner without eventually coming unstuck.
Pirates’ reaction to going in front was a big surprise. Instead of looking to kill off a City side bound to leave even more gaps, they dropped back into their own half and stopped pressing high up the pitch.
This looked a very dangerous decision with more than 30 minutes to go, even with the lack of firepower on the home team’s bench. Twice City went close from Martin’s darts inside off the right-flank, something he could do with Mkhize invited to play higher up.
First, Martin set up David to finish but the offside flag was up. Then Martin forced Sandilands into a save with another diagonal run.
Benni McCarthy’s first change was to move Martin up front and withdraw Mthembu. On came midfielder Shane Roberts, who had scored and assisted in the win over Chippa in the previous match.
Roberts moved to number ten, Martin led the line and David would play narrow on the right. Kewuti was also freed to get into the box and be an aerial target for the side now that Mthembu was off the pitch.
In truth, this change did not cause Pirates any immediate concerns as David continued to give the ball away with almost every killer pass he played, so whilst City now had ostensibly three number tens, there was not an immediate need for the change Pirates made: Xola Mlambo for Memela.
This alteration meant Lorch moved to the right and Pirates now had Pule tracking Mkhize deep into his own half on the left, and three deep-lying midfielders. Shonga was the only player high up the pitch and his effect on the game had been minimal.
If Pirates were inviting pressure before, they were now just sitting back and waiting for the final whistle.
Instead, City took up the invitation and Martin headed in Mokeke’s in-swinging right-wing cross. Munetsi and Dube had both dropped deep into their box instead of squeezing the line higher up and it was a simple header to level matters.
With such a deep defensive line, stopping crosses were imperative and a substitute like Paseka Mako to track Mkhize would have made sense.
With just three minutes plus injury time left, Pirates withdrew both full-backs and threw on Mulenga and Thabo Qalinge on the right flank, with Nyatama dropping into the middle of a back three. This led to some crosses from that side but City defended well and saw out the result.
In fact, Riyaad Norodien went closest to winning the game after his late introduction as he forced Sandilands into a superb save from a free-kick.
This game was played by two highly motivated teams.
City came into this clash to attack and committed numbers forward, exposing their backline.
Pirates made use of this space to go 2-1 in front but made a grave mistake in not looking to kill the game.
When attacking players were eventually introduced, it was far too late.
Despite his lack of game-changing options on his bench, Benni McCarthy did well to maximise the weapons at his disposal with positional changes.
Looking back, Pirates could come to regret their conservative second-half approach and their change to introduce Mlambo instead of going for the jugular.
City were there for the taking, but the pressure on Pirates in the title race led to them going into their shells instead of trusting their attacking ability.
Those final 30 minutes could come back to haunt the Ghost a week from now.