The ambitious Tshwane club cruised through the first round by beating Botswana side Jwaneng Galaxy FC 5-1 on aggregate and now start the group phase
Former Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane’s exploits with Al Ahly at the Club World Cup would have served as extra motivation to current Masandawana coaches Manqoba Mngqiti, Rhulani Mokwena and Steve Komphela to succeed in the Caf Champions League.
Mosimane, of course, won the Champions League with Sundowns in 2016, 21 years after Orlando Pirates became South Africa’s first club to win the prestigious competition.
He then followed that up by winning the same tournament with Al Ahly in 2020 and has subsequently just finished competing at the Club World Cup.
There, Mosimane took his side to a third-place finish after losing 2-0 to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, before beating Brazilian giants Palmeiras in the bronze medal match.
Back in South Africa, Mosimane’s former colleagues and those who have replaced him at Sundowns would have been watching on with a mixture of awe, admiration and probably a little envy as Mosimane boosted his status on the global football stage.
Based on the quality they have in the squad and the backing given by club owner Patrice Motsepe, there’s no reason why the three wise men – Shadrach‚ Meshach and Abednego – as Mngqiti, Mokwena and Komphela have become affectionately known, cannot take Sundowns all the way.
Group B: Tough by doable
The Brazilians kick off their Group B campaign at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Saturday evening against Sudanese champions Al-Hilal. Al-Hilal made it to the group phase last season and have not missed a Champions League campaign since 2004. So its a club with plenty of continental pedigree, who have reached the semi-finals three times in the last 16 years and were runners up in 1987 and 1992.
Also in Group B are five-time continental winners Tout Puissant Mazembe of DR Congo, as well as Algerian outfit CR Belouizdad, who are returning to the competition after a 19-year absence and on paper seem to be weakest of the group.
It will be tough, but there’s every reason to believe Sundowns can advance, most likely together with TP Mazembe. That could make this weekend’s opener against Al-Hilal a crucial one and Downs are well rested and in good form going into the match in Tshwane.
Trips across the continent are challenging for many reasons, and playing in front of partisan home crowds is one of the factors. The fact that Covid restrictions are not allowing for spectators could well work in Sundowns’ favour in countries like DR Congo, Sudan and Algeria.
There is a huge amount of quality in the current Sundowns squad. There’s experience – players who have previously won the Champions League such as Hlompho Kekana, Denis Onyango, Ricardo Nascimento and Themba Zwane.
With just seven goals conceded in 15 league matches this term, the Downs defence is rock solid. The midfield is as competitive as one can get – the likes of George Maluleka, Andile Jali and Kekana are not guaranteed places.
Most crucially, up front where games are won, Sundowns have match winners. In 2016 they had Leonardo Castro, Khama Billiat and Keagan Dolly. Now they’ve got the on-form Peter Shalulile as well as Gaston Sirino and Kermit Erasmus, while Zwane has upped his goal-scoring stats significantly and then there’s plenty of support from midfielders such as Mothobi Mvala, Lebohang Maboe and Sibusiso Vilakazi to name just a few.
There’s also fresh blood – players such as Rivaldo Coetzee, Lesedi Kapinga, Aubrey Modiba, Thapelo Morena, Rushine De Reuck and Brian Onyango will be keen to make their mark in Africa’s top competition.
In short, the Pretoria side should be aiming high and anything less than making the semi-finals would be a disappointment for the South African powerhouse.