Early second-half goals from Musa Nyatama and Justin Shonga had seemingly put the home side on course for a straightforward win. But after Eleazar Rodgers netted in the 82nd minute, Bucs had to dig really deep see out the game.
The victory means Micho Sredojevic’s team enjoy a six-point cushion over both Mamelodi Sundowns and Bidvest Wits. The Soweto side though has played more matches – 27, while Wits have played 26 and Sundowns just 24.
With Stars happy to defend deep and to play on the counter, Pirates endured a frustrating first half as they battled to create any decent scoring chances.
It was the visitors who had the early opportunities, but a couple of long-range shots from Relebogile Mokhuoane and Makhehlene Makhaula didn’t cause Bucs stopper Wayne Sandilands many problems.
Ea Lla Koto goalkeeper Samkelo Mbambo, meanwhile, remained largely untested as his teammates continued to defend resolutely against a Pirates side bereft of creativity up front.
Mbambo did do well when called upon in the 40th minute to rush off his line and steal the ball off the feet of a goal-bound Luvuyo Memela, in what was one of the few times the hosts looked dangerous.
However, Pirates were to get the break they needed, a minute after the interval, when former Bucs defender Rooi Mahamutsa’s clumsy challenge on Memela resulted in a penalty. Nyatama stepped up to take responsibility and sent a crisp spot kick past Mbambo to put the Sea Robbers ahead.
And just seven minutes later they had a two-goal lead as Innocent Maela took off on a brilliant solo run, playing a one-two with Shonga, before his shot deflected off Mbambo and into Shonga’s path for the Zambian to nod over the line.
That brought about a response from Stars as they committed bodies forward, which also meant that more space opened up for Pirates, and they appeared unlucky to have a goal ruled out in the 64th minute after Marshall Munetsi had bundled a Memela free kick into the net.
Vincent Pule then missed a great chance right in front of goal as he pulled his 70th-minute shot wide following some more good work from Memela.
The Free State side was however not finished yet and after Harris Tchilimbou had flashed a header inches wide, Rodgers set up a rousing end to the game with a thumping header into the top corner in the 82nd minute.
From there on in, it was all about whether Pirates could hold on against a rampant Ea Lla Koto, and after making several relatively routine stops, Sandilands came to his side’s rescue with a save of the highest order deep in added time as he tipped Nyiko Mobbie’s shot around the post.