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CASABLANCA CRUNCH

Mamelodi Sundowns wary of Wydad in Champions League semi clash, despite recent coaching change

Mamelodi Sundowns wary of Wydad in Champions League semi clash, despite recent coaching change
Themba Zwane of Mamelodi Sundowns in action against Percy Tau of Al Ahly during theuir CAF Champions League match at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 11 March 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images)

On Saturday night Mamelodi Sundowns will look to take a giant stride towards reaching their first Caf Champions League final since 2016. Reigning African champions Wydad Casablanca stand in their way.

After three successive seasons of Mamelodi Sundowns failing to navigate past the Caf Champions League quarterfinals, the hoodoo is snapped. The sky’s the limit in the semifinals and beyond.

A tough test awaits the South African champions in the form of reigning African champions, Wydad Casablanca, in the last four. The two juggernauts will wrestle for first-leg advantage on Saturday night, with kick-off at 9pm in Casablanca.

The Moroccan powerhouse clinched the continental title on home soil in 2022, holding off the record winners of Africa’s premier club competition, Al Ahly of Egypt.

This is Wydad’s fifth season on the trot reaching this stage of the competition. They pushed on to reach the final twice in that time, winning last year and being downed by Tunisia’s Espérance in the 2018/19 showdown.

Peter Shalulile of Mamelodi Sundowns competes for the ball with Yasser Elhanafy of Al Ahly at Loftus Versfeld on 11 March 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images)

That type of consistency suggests that South African side Sundowns will not have an easy ride as they attempt an audacious coup d’état against the incumbent kings of African club soccer.

A chaotic week for Wydad might work in favour of the Brazilians. The African soccer heavyweights recently dismissed Spanish coach Juan Carlos Garrido.

It’s going to be tricky. We know that… We are expecting a tough game, a hostile crowd and a lot of difficulty.

This was despite the Spanish mentor leading them to the last four in the Champions League, as well as trailing log leaders ASFAR by just a single point in the Moroccan top-flight, with five games remaining this season.

That return was deemed not good enough by the club’s hierarchy and demanding supporters. The Moroccan outfit has since moved swiftly, replacing Garrido with Belgian tactician Sven Vandenbroeck.

Vandenbroeck is the fourth coach since Morocco national team mentor Walid Regragui led Wydad to a domestic league and Champions League double in 2022.

Wydad players celebrate winning the CAF Champions during the CAF Champions League 2021/22 Final between Al Ahly and Wydad Athletic Club held at the Mohamed V Stadium in Casablanca, Morocco on 30 May 2022 ©Weam Mostafa/BackpagePix

Nevertheless, Sundowns are not reading much into the recent happenings in Casablanca. The team’s head coach, Rulani Mokwena, is cognisant that Les Rouges possess enough quality to make things extremely difficult for his side across the two legs.  

“It’s going to be tricky. We know that… We are expecting a tough game, a hostile crowd and a lot of difficulty. They are a good team and they have a new coach, as you have seen. But they should also expect a good team,” Mokwena said ahead of the first-leg clash in Casablanca.

“[They should also expect] a team that will come there and be brave to play. We just have to enjoy the opportunity and the occasion,” he added.

Mamelodi Sundowns celebrate victory over Al Ahly at Loftus Versfeld on 11 March 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images)

“It’s going to be a good game against a team that, of course, is the defending champion, [that also has] good pedigree in the Champions League after many years of competing. It’s going to be an interesting game between two good teams. We have to fight… Nothing is given on a silver platter.”

Sundowns have already shown that they have no qualms about travelling and coming back with a positive result in the continental showpiece.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mamelodi Sundowns take a huge leap towards snapping Champions League quarterfinal hoodoo

In their quarterfinal clash against Algeria’s CR Belouizdad (which they claimed 6-2 on aggregate), Masandawana took the game to the hosts in Algiers. They hardly broke a sweat as they brilliantly breezed 4-1 past the North Africans.

At another intimidating venue up north, the South Africans held Al Ahly to a two-all draw in Cairo, before ramming them 5-2 during the reverse fixture in Group B.

With such results in mind, the Brazilians will be feeling highly confident of heading into the second leg of the semifinal fixture with a positive result in hand.

In the other clash of the last four, Al Ahly will travel to Tunis where they too will be looking to gain a first-leg advantage against Espérance. That fixture takes place today at 9pm South African time. DM

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