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CAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Mamelodi Sundowns keep calm – amid a sea of red – to avoid defeat against Wydad Casablanca

Mamelodi Sundowns keep calm – amid a sea of red – to avoid defeat against Wydad Casablanca
Wydad's Arsène Zola (left) and Amine Aboulfath in action with Mamelodi Sundowns' Ronwen Williams (centre) during the CAF Champions League semifinal first leg match at Mohammed V Stadium in Casablanca, Morocco, 13 May 2023. (Photo: EPA / Jalal Morchidi)

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena says his charges must remain humble heading into the second leg of their semifinal contest against Wydad Casablanca.

As expected, the first-leg battle between defending African champions Wydad Casablanca, and the team with aspirations of dethroning them – in the form of Mamelodi Sundowns – was a cagey one during the CAF Champions League semifinals.

The match played on Saturday night in Casablanca, Morocco, ended 0–0, with both sides refusing to grant the other any advantage heading into the second leg in a week’s time.

However, it will be Sundowns who will be the most pleased by the stalemate. This after they ended the match with just nine men, and had to fend off an onslaught from the home side as a result.

Les Rouges smelt blood after Neo Maema saw red for stepping on an opponent a couple of minutes before halftime. Their passionate fans – clad in red – fanned the flames of determination within Morocco’s most successful club.

The incident appeared to be purely accidental (with the Sundowns playmaker seemingly carried by his momentum while trying to ride a tackle); however, after a video assistant referee review, the sequence was deemed dangerous enough for Maema to take an early shower.

Nevertheless, Masandawana used their wits to hold off any real threat from the hosts – though there were some nervous moments before the visitors concluded their workmanlike display.

But not before they received another red card with Chilean midfielder Marcelo Allende handed his marching orders for a studs-up challenge in injury time.

Mamelodi Sundowns players pose before the CAF Champions League semifinal first leg match against Wydad at Mohammed V Stadium in Casablanca, Morocco, 13 May 2023. (Photo: EPA / Jalal Morchid)

Praise and plaudits

Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena lauded his charges for their valiant effort, knowing that heading into the second leg on home soil in a few days, they have a slight advantage – even if it will still take a massive effort for them to claim victory.

“Before the [first] red card we were very good. We were excellent and that’s why I give so much praise and plaudits to the players. But we keep our feet firmly on the ground and still focus on the second leg in Pretoria. We know that we will also have the yellow nation behind us,” Mokwena told journalists in his post-match press conference.

“After the red card the game became completely different. We had to adapt. But congratulations to this group of players for their magnificent effort and performance today under very, very difficult circumstances,” he said.

“The players are gaining more experience playing these difficult matches. We trust them to continue to be of service and to give the best that they can. Under the circumstances, emotionally, [the result] feels like a victory. But I am the first to say that it’s only half time and now we’ve got to focus on a difficult return leg.”

The Brazilians have made the Champions League semifinals for the first time since the 2018/2019 campaign – snapping a hoodoo spanning three successive seasons of failing to navigate past the quarterfinals.

By contrast, this is Wydad’s fifth semifinal campaign on the trot. They pushed on to reach the final twice, winning last year and being downed by Tunisia’s Espérance in the 2018/19 showdown.

This season Sundowns are wearing the favourites tag, with many backing them to clinch a second Champions League crown after their maiden African success in 2016.

Heritage football

However, Mokwena remains wary of Wydad’s superior pedigree in the competition heading into the second leg on South African soil.

“They call it football heritage. A lot of clubs have won the Champions League more than us [including Wydad]. And they have a lot more pressure than us to win the Champions League every single year,” the 36-year-old tactician said.

“Wydad are the defending champions who have reached seven out of the last eight semifinals. We just have to do the best we can. Fight, play well, do our best to represent the football club, and enjoy the opportunity – which we know doesn’t come for everyone.”

The winner of the tie is almost certain to contest the decider against record-holding African champions Al Ahly.

The Egyptian heavyweights bulldozed Espérance 3–0 in Tunis – with South Africa’s Percy Tau netting a brace. They are unlikely to let such a massive advantage slip during the return leg in Cairo. Though stranger things have happened. DM

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