Mamelodi Sundowns shift gears as they aim to draw first blood against Algeria’s Belouizdad
Mamelodi Sundowns’ quest for just their second Caf Champions League crown continues in their quarterfinal clash against the North Africa outfit on Saturday.
Mamelodi Sundowns were recently bundled out of the Nedbank Cup, a trophy they have won twice in the past three seasons. There’s no time for moping around though for the serial South African champions.
They have their sights set on a piece of silverware that has proven to be much more elusive — the Caf Champions League.
They face Algerian outfit CR Belouizdad on Saturday (22 April), away from home, in the first leg of what is set to be a tough quarterfinal fixture. The return leg is set for Saturday, 29 April.
“It’s a draw that we accept with a lot of humility, but also with a clear understanding that it’s going to be difficult,” said Sundowns mentor Rulani Mokwena when the two teams were pitted against each other.
“Belouizdad is a very good side. Even though they finished second in their group with 10 points. They have had a good campaign in the Champions League, and in their domestic league where they sit in the first position. They are a very interesting side with impressive tactical formations and structures with good players,” added the 36-year-old coach.
Mokwena will know all too well that once the knockout stage arrives, it matters very little whether the teams clashing finished first or second in their respective groups.
Despite a dominant display during the group phase last season — where they finished as statistically the best team — Masandawana didn’t live up to expectations and were eliminated at this very stage by Angolan side Petro Atlético. It was the third year in a row that they had fallen at this hurdle.
Despite the Tshwane giants regularly vacuuming up every trophy in front of them domestically of late — including winning the DStv Premiership six times on the trot — success in Africa’s premier club competition has proven to be a tougher prospect.
This is evidenced by the fact that since their maiden continental conquest back in 2016 — Masandawana have failed to reach another final in the competition. Since then, the South African side has been eliminated in the quarterfinals almost every season.
The exception came in the 2018/2019 season — when they managed to play until the semifinals, before being vanquished by Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca 2-1 on aggregate.
There is no doubt that Mokwena’s men are ravenous to once again be crowned kings of Africa. However, this recent history in the competition will be playing on their minds. If they are to succeed — they will need to block out those thoughts and focus on the task at hand. Something the coach believes they can do.
“This group [is one] that has to be given fair opportunities to be able to make their own mark, write their own history and create their own legacy in the club. I strongly believe that this team will eventually win the Champions League,” Mokwena stated recently.
“When will it happen? I can’t play God, but I know that every day we work towards this objective.”
Mokwena has denied that his side has taken its foot off the pedal since clinching its latest local league title, saying: “There will never be a game that I am in charge of and there is no aggression. No chance.”
Nevertheless, recent results are proof of the opposite. The club — which earlier this year set the South African Premiership record for most wins in a row (15) — is winless in four matches.
They have played to three stalemates (two of them goalless). To compound matters, their last outing was a defeat. They were bundled out of the Nedbank Cup quarterfinals by Stellenbosch.
The 2-1 defeat was the first for the club, in all competitions, since Mokwena was appointed as sole head coach in October 2022. Prior to that impressive streak, he had been co-coach alongside Manqoba Mngqithi.
The coach has said the scrutiny on Sundowns’ recent displays is down to the team’s overall brilliance. In essence, they are just victims of how good they generally are, and for most other clubs their recent results would be normal.
Mokwena maintains that “Sundowns is the benchmark … by far the best team in the country.” They must show this in the two legs against Algeria’s best — Belouizdad.
If they succeed in that quest, they must show it in the semifinals and final of the continental competition so that they can shake off the title of just being domestic bullies. DM
Caf Champions League first leg fixtures
Friday, 21 April:
JS Kabylie vs ES Tunis (11pm)
Saturday, 22 April:
Simba vs Wydad Casablanca (3pm)
CR Belouizdad vs Mamelodi Sundowns (9pm)
Al Ahly vs Raja Casablanca (9pm)