Sport

SOCCER

It’s back to the drawing board for Mamelodi Sundowns after Champions League agony

It’s back to the drawing board for Mamelodi Sundowns after Champions League agony
Themba Zwane of Mamelodi Sundowns looks dejected during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium, 20 May 2023, in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena says his side must galvanise and fight again next season after their latest Champions League pursuit was extinguished by defending African champions Wydad Casablanca.

Despite not losing a single match in the CAF Champions League this season, Mamelodi Sundowns are out of the competition.

A 2-2 draw with Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca dealt the TKO blow to the 2016 African champions, as Les Rouges vanquished them by virtue of the away goals rule in Tshwane on Saturday.

During the first leg in Casablanca a week ago, they played to a 0-0 stalemate, despite the fact that the visiting South African side ended the match with nine men.

That result was seen as a mental victory by Sundowns, after they faced Wydad’s raucous red army in Casablanca, and endured their volcanic hostility to emerge relatively unscathed in an environment where very few manage the feat.

The build-up to the second leg centred around the importance of scoring first. Sundowns head coach Rulani Mokwena believed his side could do it — and they did.

Saif-Eddine Bouhra of Wydad Athletic Club and Mothobi Mvala, Thapelo Morena of Mamelodi Sundowns during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium on 20 May 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Hamid Ahadad of Wydad Athletic Club and Gaston Leandro Sirino of Mamelodi Sundowns during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium on 20 May 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Sequence of play

Following a first half of heavy sparring between the juggernauts — with the goalkeepers of both teams forced into some smart saves — Sundowns’ veteran midfielder Themba Zwane used his magical feet to unlock Wydad’s disciplined defence, just five minutes into the second stanza.

Advantage Sundowns. Until Wydad right-back Ayoub El Amloud rose highest to steer a sumptuous cross past Ronwen Williams in the Sundowns goal.

The Brazilians bounced back, a mere seven minutes after receiving that heavy body blow from the Moroccans. Peter Shalulile dealt the damage for the home side in the 79th minute.

Champions though, even in the face of a stormy sea of yellow, do not just throw in the towel. They fight. That’s what African kings Wydad did, with the gods of football smiling upon them.

A mere four minutes after Shalulile’s strike, Masandawana centre-back Mthobi Mvala accidentally guided the ball into his own net, making sure another header beat Williams on the day.

Now Wydad were firmly in the driving seat with their two away goals. They just needed to hold on for a few more minutes to ensure they reached a second successive Champions League final.

This they did, reducing Sundowns to tears. 

In the final, they will face the team they beat in the 2022 showpiece — record African champions Al Ahly. The Egyptians cruised to a 4-0 aggregate win over Tunisia’s Espérance in their semifinal encounter on Friday.  

Peter Shalulile, Cassius Mailula and Gaston Leandro Sirino during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium on 20 May 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Cassius Mailula of Mamelodi Sundowns and Amine Aboulfath of Wydad Athletic Club during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium on 20 May 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Galvanise and go again

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 a tougher prospect.

In fact, before this latest foray into the last four of Africa’s premier club competition, the Tshwane giants had fallen at the quarterfinals in almost every season since being crowned African kings seven years ago.

The exception came in the 2018/19 campaign when they managed to play until the semifinals, before being ousted by Wydad 2-1 on aggregate.

“What is evident is that we haven’t been in the semifinals for the past three years of a very important and difficult competition,” Mokwena told journalists after the match. “The gains are evident, even though they are marginal. The mistakes are also evident, even though they are marginal.

“But [soccer], especially in this tough competition, doesn’t allow for mistakes — because you get punished.”  

In spite of those gains Mokwena alludes to, it’s a disappointing ending to another promising Champions League campaign for the South African side, despite the club setting the benchmark in their domestic league.  

“We end [up] having won a lot of hearts, but not [being] good enough. We’ve got to galvanise, pick ourselves up and go again next season,” said Mokwena.

The two-legged final between Wydad and Al Ahly — the same two sides that duelled for the African title last year — is set for 4 and 11 June. The first leg will be played in Cairo, with the reverse fixture hosted by the Moroccans.

Despite Sundowns’ absence in the final showdown, South Africa will have a representative in the form of Bafana Bafana forward Percy Tau. The former Sundowns star will be looking to help his current club Ahly clinch a record-extending 11th Champions League crown. DM

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