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Sundowns steal morale-boosting league win ahead of crucial Champions League contest

Sundowns steal morale-boosting league win ahead of crucial Champions League contest
Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena will have to devise a plan for his side to find the back of the net against Yanga. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Mamelodi Sundowns earned a confidence-boosting win in the DStv Premiership. This ahead of a crucial clash against Tanzania’s Yanga in the Caf Champions League quarterfinals.  

A second-string Mamelodi Sundowns side comprising players that most teams in the DStv Premiership can only dream of having on their roster earned the defending champions a last-gasp 1-0 win against Richards Bay on Tuesday night.

The win, courtesy of an injury-time header by super-sub Junior Mendieta, took Masandawana’s unbeaten streak in the league to 43 games. It also extended their lead at the summit to 11 points, though they have played two games less than the 21 played by second-placed Stellenbosch.

Victory versus Richards Bay also means Sundowns are still on track for a record unbeaten league season.

It was not an easy match though for the Tshwane giants. Their coach Rulani Mokwena summed it up perfectly in his post-match press conference, saying: “We needed to win against a team that was not here to win.”

Indeed, the KwaZulu-Natal side looked to absorb the pressure and play on the counter against a Sundowns team that made 11 changes from their nil-all draw against Tanzania’s Yanga in the Caf Champions League quarterfinals over the past weekend.

The fact that Sundowns were still able to record victory over the super stubborn Natal Rich Boys will be a major confidence booster ahead of the second-leg quarterfinal clash against the Tanzanians on Friday evening.

Soccer-Sundowns Champions League

Kutlwano Letlhaku of Mamelodi Sundowns. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Loads of quality

Mokwena has previously stated he is not fond of rotating his players. However, with the quality that Sundowns possesses, as well as their ambition of winning a second Champions League title after their 2016 success, rotation is vital to keep their players fresh and injury-free.

Mokwena also hinted that at this point in the season, it is about maintaining the momentum of winning — even if you don’t play your best football in the process.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mamelodi Sundowns’ sole loss in Champions League group phase may be good omen

“That’s the life we live. It’s going to be like that now. Every two/three days [we are going to be playing]. Up until the end of the season. We have to get used to it. This time is not always about the details of the performance. It’s about making sure we stay focused on the ultimate prize. These are games of consequence,” Mokwena stated.

One positive for Sundowns is that they will head to the game against Yanga with their skipper Themba Zwane back in the fold. Mshishi, as Zwane is known, missed the first leg in Dar es Salaam through suspension after accumulating yellow cards.

Against a very tactically disciplined Yanga outfit, Zwane’s creative input was a glaring miss.

Themba Zwane of Mamelodi Sundowns

Themba Zwane of Mamelodi Sundowns challenged by Yahya Jabrane and Abdellah Haimoud of Wydad during their Caf Champions League 2022/23 semifinal at Loftus Stadium on 20 May, 2023. (Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix)

“Themba Zwane is Themba Zwane. I speak a lot about Mshishi. About his influence and importance to this group. But we need everybody. That’s the message I’ve been sending. I’m happy that [the players] are receiving this message and coming up with good performances,” Mokwena told journalists.

The team’s performance will have to be just a level above good if they are to keep their hopes of conquering Africa alive.

Midfield anchor Teboho Mokoena also pointed out the importance of their supporters packing into the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Friday night to spur the team on in its continuing quest to reach their first Champions League final in almost a decade.

“We have to win at home. To Masandawana, you saw from Yanga fans that the stadium was fully packed. May you please come on Friday to support and cheer for us,” Mokoena said.

Sundowns’ potential opponents in the semifinals, Tunisia’s Espérance and Ivorian outfit ASEC Mimosas, also played to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their quarterfinal. Leaving that tie evenly balanced as well. DM

Mamelodi Sundowns vs Yanga plays on Friday, 5 April. Kick off is at 8pm.

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