Orlando Pirates’ hopes of closing the gap on Premier Soccer League league front-runners Mamelodi Sundowns were dented on Saturday as they lost 1-0 at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
The only goal of a hotly contested encounter was scored by Sundowns defender Brian Onyango 10 minutes before the end of the first half.
It might have been the opening action after the Christmas break, but there were little sign of rustiness from either team as the game got off to a fast-paced, high-intensity start.
There was an fourth minute chance for the hosts when Peter Shalulile cut the ball back from Lebohang Maboe, but from the edge of the area his rising shot narrowly missed finding the top corner.
Ricardo Nascimento, captaining Sundowns in the absence of Hlompho Kekana, also had an opening, but his 11th minute header from a corner was cleared by Bucs midfielder Fortune Makaringe, before Shalulile correctly had a headed goal ruled off-side.
Pirates began to find their rhythm around the 15-minute mark and also had chances as Thembinkosi Lorch fired a half volley across the face of goal before Vincent Pule drew a good save from Downs stopper Denis Onyango after a neat bit of combination play with Lorch.
Blows continued to be traded as Maboe went fairly close with an audacious 45-yard chip, while at the other end, a promising break for Bucs came to nothing when Deon Hotto’s cross for Terrence Dzvukamanja was cut out by Brian Onyango.
Shortly afterwards, the Kenyan defender was to pop up in the Pirates box to give Sundowns a 35th-minute lead when he headed home from on the line - after the visitors had failed to deal with Rivaldo Coetzee’s free kick and the ball had rebounded off Nascimento and across the goalmouth.
There was no let up to the high-paced competitive nature of the game after half time and there were soon chances at both ends as Lorch sent a volley wide before Mothobi Mvala missed a great chance for Downs when he fired wide from close range after a Khuliso Madau’s cross had been cleared off the line by Pirates defender Ntsikelelo Nyauza.
Hotto then had a shot deflected wide by his teammate Makaringe, before Sundowns were denied a second goal when Sandilands saved at the feet of a goalbound Morena on the hour mark.
Next it was the turn of the substitutes to get involved as Kermit Erasmus had a low angled shot saved by Sandilands, while Gabadinho Mhango’s free kick was kept out by Onyango.
Another of Pirates’ substitutes, debutant Jean-Marc Makusu, should have put the Sea Robbers back on level terms with 10 minutes to play when he was left unmarked in the Sundowns box as Hotto crossed the ball in, but a poor first touch saw the chance go to waste.
At the other end, Erasmus should really have wrapped it up in the 84th minute when he was afforded time to pick his spot from inside the box, but his effort came back off the upright, before Morena also squandered an opportunity by firing into the side-netting two minutes later.
Although the Buccaneers pushed hard for a goal in the closing moments of the game, the Sundowns defence were not overly troubled as they held on for a tight win which sends them three points clear of Swallows FC at the top of the standings.