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Wydad head into AFL final against Sundowns with a marginal psychological edge

Wydad head into AFL final against Sundowns with a marginal psychological edge
Wydad Athletic Club players celebrate a goal during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad at Loftus Stadium on 20 May, 2023 in Tshwane. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Battles between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Casablanca are always memorable. Expect no different in the first leg of their Africa Football League encounter on Sunday evening.

After holding off some stiff competition from Egyptian giants Al Ahly and Tunisia’s Espérance respectively – Tshwane’s Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Casablanca of Morocco are set to butt heads on Sunday, 5 November in the inaugural evening final of the Africa Football League (AFL).

Sundowns withstood the cauldron-esque conditions at Cairo Stadium to beat the Red Devils 1-0 on aggregate in the two-legged semifinal of Africa’s new soccer competition. After securing a hard-fought 1-0 at home, Masandawana were able to hold Al Ahly 0-0 in Egypt on Wednesday, 1 November.

“Mamelodi Sundowns showed character, guile and lots of perseverance in what was a difficult 97/98 minutes against a very strong team. But I must be honest and tell you that this semifinal was won in South Africa in the first leg. That 1-0 result was very big,” Masandawana head coach Rulani Mokwena said after the game.  

Having survived those hostile conditions, more hostility awaits the Tshwane-based side when they travel to Casablanca to clash with Wydad AC in the first stanza of the two-legged final.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Dark clouds hang over ‘revolutionary’ African Football League as PSL gripes persist

The Moroccans edged Espérance 5-4 in a penalty shootout after the semifinal had concluded, with the team inseparable and tied at one-all. Wydad held their nerve to join Sundowns in the first ever AFL final.  

Saif-Eddine Bouhra of Wydad and Thapelo Morena of Mamelodi Sundowns during the CAF Champions League match at Loftus on 20 May, 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

With both teams spurred on by becoming the first to etch their name on the trophy, as well as the grand prize of $4-million (about R74-million) for being crowned the inaugural champion, it should be an electrifying encounter. 

Although, with the runner-up pocketing a mammoth $3-million, losing the final would not be the most horrible happening either.

However, each side wants its supporters to have the bragging rights. And neither wants to be known as the losers of the first-ever final of a competition that the Confederation of African Football (Caf) has touted as a “gamechanger” for the continent’s soccer development.

Marginal edge amid fine margins

Wydad head into the encounter carrying a marginal psychological edge over their South African rivals. Of the last 11 matches between the pair, the Moroccan club boasts four wins to Sundowns’ three.

Four of the clashes between the teams have ended in stalemates. The most recent draw was in May 2023, when Wydad knocked Sundowns out of the Caf Champions League in the semifinals. The game ended two-all in Tshwane. The Moroccans advanced on away goals, following a 0-0 draw during the first leg in Casablanca.

Wydad showed grit and tenacity to completely crush the hearts of Sundowns on that fateful day a few months ago. Twice they came back from behind to silence the cacophony of supporters clad in yellow and buzzing like bees, who had filled up Loftus Versfeld and were baying for blood.

Cassius Mailula of Mamelodi Sundowns cries while comforted by David Notoane and Rushine De Reuck during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad AC at Loftus Stadium on 10 May, 2023 in Tshwane. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

A fixture to exact revenge

This fixture is an opportunity for the South Africans to exact their revenge and also show that they are not just domestic bullies. That they can mix it up with the best on the continent and conquer when it matters most.

Having won the last six DStv Premiership titles in a row, Sundowns have now firmly established themselves as one of Africa’s most feared and respected teams. However, continental glory has proven elusive since they won their only Champions League title back in 2016.

Wydad in turn are African football royalty, having won 22 Moroccan league titles and three Champions League titles in their proud history.

Wydad players celebrating at Loftus on 20 May, 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Stage set for the final

The stage is set for an exciting final. With much to play for over the two legs. The first leg takes place on 5 November, at Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca. The reverse fixture of the final is Tshwane, taking place on 11 November.

Key Sundowns players are nursing some knocks ahead of the first half of the final battle. As they were during the semifinal against Al Ahly. But Mokwena is not particularly perturbed.  

“The quality of the players we are without is very important. The likes of Peter Shalulile, Lucas Ribeiro, Sipho Mbule and Thapelo Morena,” said the Sundowns head coach.  

“But the absence of others gives very good opportunities for the other players and for us to use the depth of the squad. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, I would rather focus on what we have. And what we have is a group of players that are prepared to give their heart and soul to serve this football club.” DM

The final kicks off at 8pm SA time.

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