Sport

LOFTY AMBITIONS

Mamelodi Sundowns’ sole loss in Champions League group phase may be good omen

Mamelodi Sundowns’ sole loss in Champions League group phase may be good omen
Abdelmounaim Boutouil of Mamelodi Sundowns challenged by Joel Beya of TP Mazembe during the 2023/24 CAF Champions League on 2 March, 2024. (Photo: Gavin Barker /BackpagePix)

In the two seasons preceding the current one, Mamelodi Sundowns concluded the group stage without tasting defeat. This season they lost once, to DR Congo’s TP Mazembe. This loss may serve the team well in their pursuit of being crowned kings of Africa.

Mamelodi Sundowns are in the quarterfinals of the Caf Champions League for the sixth consecutive season.

In the last eight, they are joined by other African heavyweight teams such as Egyptian giant Al Ahly and ASEC Mimosas which will be looking to emulate its home country Ivory Coast by being crowned African champion in 2024.

Tunisia’s Espérance, who have been crowned African champions four times, are also in the mix. As are Tanzanian pair Simba and Yanga, as well as Petro Atletico (Angola) and TP Mazembe, who hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Confederation of African Football (Caf) confirmed on Tuesday morning that the quarterfinal match-ups will be decided during a draw that is set to take place on 12 March.

The draw will be conducted in Cairo, Egypt. It will not include three-time Champions League winners Wydad Casablanca. The Moroccans were edged by ASEC and Simba to the quarterfinal qualification spots as they finished third in their group.

Chink in the armour

Over the last two seasons of the Champions League, Sundowns managed to navigate the group stage without tasting defeat.

In 2021/2022, they finished at the summit of their group following five wins and a single draw from their six mini-league matches. Despite this magnificent display, they were shocked by Angola’s Petro in the quarterfinals; suffering a 3-2 aggregate defeat.

The subsequent season saw them play to two draws, while winning four times, to once again claim top spot in their group. This time they would reach the semifinals. The first time the one-time African champions had done so since the 2018/2019 season.

In fact, they were ousted from last season’s Champions League semifinals despite not losing a single match in the competition.

A 2-2 draw at home against Morocco’s Wydad (following a 0-0 draw in the opening leg of the two-legged last-four tussle) dealt the TKO blow to the South Africans as Les Rouges vanquished them by virtue of the away goals rule in Tshwane.

In the aftermath, Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena expressed that their 2022/2023 campaign was a bittersweet one. On one hand, they remained undefeated throughout the competition. On the other hand, Masandawana failed in their quest for a second Champions League title.

Rulani Mokwena

Rulani Mokwena, head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns. (Photo: Gavin Barker /BackpagePix)

Humbling defeat

In the ongoing campaign, the Brazilians have already tasted defeat in the group stages. They lost 1-0 to Mazembe in December. This loss may just be what is needed for the Tshwane side to finally dribble their way to African glory.

In the past two seasons, though complacency hardly has any place at Sundowns, they may have fallen victim to being overconfident. That’s particularly true for the defeat versus Petro.

Now the serial South African champions (with six domestic league titles on the trot) head into this season’s knockout round fully cognisant that they are not invincible. Regardless of their current streak of 40 unbeaten matches in the DStv Premiership.

Masandawana mentor Mokwena says a systematic approach usually guarantees success in this competition. But he also hinted that luck is a part of it, referencing Ivory Coast’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) triumph as an example.

The hosts of the most recent Afcon seemed to be already eliminated on home soil. They even fired head coach Jean-Louis Gasset mid-tournament. But they squeezed through to the knockout stage as one of the best third-placed teams. Then they knocked out 2021 champions Senegal on penalties, before edging Nigeria 2-1 in the final.

Ronwen Williams, goalkeeper of Mamelodi Sundowns

Ronwen Williams, goalkeeper of Mamelodi Sundowns. (Photo: Gavin Barker /BackpagePix)

“Just look at the Ivory Coast story. [They were] already out [in the eyes of many]. Coach out and then these people qualify [for the knockout stage] and go on to ride the crest of that wave,” stated Mokwena.

Mokwena is hopeful that this will be their season to finally reclaim the only title that has eluded them in recent years, despite the beautiful football they regularly play.

Especially because Sundowns harbours ambitions for global dominance. Winning this season’s Champions League will guarantee that they qualify for Fifa’s expanded 32-team club World Cup, which is scheduled to be a precursor of the 2026 World Cup.

Al Ahly and Wydad have already booked their spots due to winning the past two Champions League titles.

“It’s the club’s ambition. The club wants to not only be one of the best clubs in the African continent, but of course, from a global perspective,” said Mokwena.

Just as is the case with their African ambitions, this global dominance endeavour will be achieved one game at a time. DM

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