Sport

HARROWING ESPÉRANCE

Sun sets on yet another season of Champions League heartbreak for Mamelodi Sundowns

Sun sets on yet another season of Champions League heartbreak for Mamelodi Sundowns
Sundowns’ Bathusi Aubaas is tackled by Houssam Ghacha of Espérance Sportive de Tunis. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Tunisia’s Espérance prolonged Mamelodi Sundowns’ wait for a Champions League title after ousting the South Africans from the continental competition. Nevertheless, Masandawana can still end the season in a historic manner. 

Another season, another Caf Champions League failure for Mamelodi Sundowns. This time Masandawana were downed 2-0 on aggregate by Tunisia’s Espérance in the semifinals of the continental competition on Friday.

The Tshwane giants were aiming to reach just a second final in the competition. However, it was not to be as Sundowns’ uncharacteristically poor finishing on the night was ultimately their undoing.

Weather the storm

Espérance headed into the second leg encounter at Loftus Versfeld carrying a slim 1-0 advantage which the South Africans were confident of overturning, with the backing of their yellow army and home ground advantage.

The Tunisians weathered the Brazilians’ onslaught, aided in part by the home side’s profligacy, as well as their own defensive discipline.

An hour-long break after 20 minutes of play — which was enforced by an aggressive thunder and lightning storm — did little to ease the mental cageyness of Sundowns on a night that would define the team’s season.

Instead, after the lengthy hiatus owing to the weather, it was the visitors that struck first. With their first shot on target for the night at that. When Espérance scored just before the hour mark, it was completely against the run of play.

Masandawana had possession and the best chances to score while their supporters cheered them on. Espérance, who are four-time African champions, needed just one chance to punish the South Africans and condemn them to a second consecutive semifinal exit in the prestigious competition that they won for the first and only time back in 2016.

Different criteria

As a result of the team’s abundant financial resources and their domestic dominance, many South African soccer lovers judge Sundowns solely by how they perform in the Champions League.

In the build-up to the second leg, Masandawana coach Rulani Mokwena told journalists that he does not feel like he is the coach of a team that is comfortably trotting towards a seventh DStv Premiership title in a row. A team that is closing in on 50 matches undefeated in the league, having last been beaten in September 2022.

A team that is in the semifinals of the Nedbank Cup, with a great chance of also winning that competition.

The yardstick for Sundowns’ success in comparison to the rest of South Africa’s soccer sides is completely different. In the eyes of many, the Brazilians have failed once more by not winning the Champions League. All the team’s other achievements are essentially immaterial.

They also won the inaugural African Football League in late 2023. Nevertheless, even that does not hold much significance compared to the allure of the Champions League.

Mamelodi Sundowns Coach Rulani Mokwena

Mamelodi Sundowns Coach Rulani Mokwena cut a frustrated figure against ES Tunis. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wydad sink in sea of yellow as Sundowns win inaugural African Football League title

Mokwena said being African champions was not as easy as outside observers make it seem, saying he knows how tough it is due to the fact he was assistant to Pitso Mosimane when Sundowns clinched their sole title back in 2016.

“I was an assistant coach to the previous coach for a very long time. And he was here for eight years. He had eight years to try and win the Champions League [as many times as possible]. And we only won the competition once,” Mokwena told journalists.

“We only played the semifinal two times because the other time, we got into the final. But after that, in eight years, we only played the semifinal once and lost,” the 37-year-old added.

“This is my second season and we’ve done back-to-back semifinals already. And sometimes I have that feeling that people don’t appreciate that because of how they perceive the expectations.”

Khuliso Mudau of Mamelodi Sundowns

Khuliso Mudau of Mamelodi Sundowns and Rodrigues Silva of ES Tunis during the CAF Champions League semi-final 2nd Leg match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Mokwena hinted that prestige and pedigree are both key ingredients to success in the Champions League. Because almost every team that participates in the competition is a heavyweight in their domestic league.

“If you look at the profile of the teams in the Champions League, there are 21 titles among the [semifinalists, there is:] Al Ahly with 11 titles, TP Mazembe with five, Esperance with four and then Sundowns with one,” the Sundowns head coach stated.

“Now, what gives us the right to think it’s just going to be a walk in the park and win the competition? We have to work hard for it.”

Following this latest setback, they have to start from square one once more in order to try and capture the elusive continental crown.

Mokwena says as long as he still enjoys the support of employers, he has no intention of leaving Masandawana.

“My intentions are to be here. To stay and do my best every single day to try and deliver the Champions League. But football is business and results-oriented and I don’t make those decisions about which coach stays and which coach goes,” he stated.

The focus for the Tshwane side is to try and rewrite more history by clinching the Premiership without tasting a single defeat this season. After 22 games, the Brazilians have won 17 and drawn five in the league.

They have eight more games to ensure they become the first South African team to win the top flight without suffering a loss throughout the season. DM

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