MOGAMAD ALLIE: Sundowns seek to break North African dominance in Caf Champions League
Getting past the quarterfinals has proven to be a frustratingly insurmountable barrier for the 2016 champions in recent years
With a record-extending sixth consecutive Premier Soccer League (PSL) league title comfortably wrapped up, Mamelodi Sundowns are now able to turn their attention to breaking the recent North African dominance of the Caf Champions League.
Since Masandawana were crowned African champions for the first and only time in 2016 when they beat Egypt’s Zamalek in the final, the next six editions have been won by North African sides. Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca (2017 and 2022), Egypt’s Al Ahly (2020 and 2021) and Tunisia’s Esperance (2018 and 2019) have all ensured that African club football’s top prize has not left the region in the last six seasons.
In fact, since the Champions League replaced the old African Champions Cup in 1997, North African sides have won 18 of the 26 tournaments to date with sub-Saharan teams only emerging victorious eight times.
Sundowns, with Morocco’s Raja Casablanca, inaugural winners of the Champions League in 1997, are the only teams to emerge from the group stage with unbeaten records so the pair go into Wednesday evening’s draw for the quarterfinals as two of the favourites in this year’s competition. The two-legged ties will be played on the last two weekends of this month.
Coming away from Cairo with a 2-2 draw against 10-time champions Al Ahly, and then thumping the Red Devils 5-2 in the return game at Loftus, would have given Rhulani Mokwena’s side a massive morale boost. It’s not often the Egyptian giants get thumped in the way they were taken apart on March 11, moving their coach Marcel Koller to remark that the Chloorkop side has what it takes to go all the way.
With the group winners all being seeded, Sundowns will at least avoid tough sides such as Raja, defending champions Wydad Casablanca and Tunisia’s Esperance in the quarterfinal draw. But that’s no guarantee of an easier passage to the last four, as the PSL champions painfully found out last season when they were shocked by Petro de Luanda. As it turned out, Wydad were the only one of the four group winners to progress to the semifinals last time around.
Getting past the quarters has proven to be a frustratingly insurmountable barrier for the 2016 champions in recent years. In addition to last season’s loss to the Angolan champions, the Brazilians were also knocked out at this stage by Al Ahly in 2020 and 2021 and by Wydad in 2017.
At least they won’t face the prospect of another quarterfinal encounter with Africa’s club of the Century, since they can’t be drawn against a team that was in their group. Their potential opponents are one of CR Belouizdad, Algerian champions for the past three seasons, compatriots JS Kabylie (African champions in 1981 and 1990), or Tanzania’s Simba SC. While each of the trio present potential banana skins, Simba are probably the most palatable option, though they can’t be taken lightly either.
Kabylie beat Wydad at home to ensure an unbeaten home record in their group as they finished ahead of Petro de Luanda while Belouizdad did the double over Zamalek, qualifying ahead of the five-time champions as they finished second behind Esperance, whom they held to a goalless draw in Tunis.
Amid the rising expectations of Sundowns adding a cherished second star to their badge, Mokwena has rightly been cautious about his team’s chances. Remember, the standard of the other seven teams that will go into the draw in Cairo is a notch up from that which the Brazilians have brushed aside with ease in the PSL.
While the 36-year-old coach rightly believes his team has the capacity to become African champions, he has also been smart enough to deflect the pressure of expectation from his players.
“It’s not going to be easy, look at the quality of the teams that are in the quarterfinals already,” he said ahead of last Saturday’s final group game against Coton Sport.
“It’s teams like Raja Casablanca, for example, who haven’t won the Champions League since 1999. Al Ahly, Wydad — these are teams that are many years older than us, these are teams that have been trying to win the Champions League and competing in this space for many decades.”
While Mokwena has also been quick to point out that the current group of players is still relatively new to the unique challenges of competing in Africa, compared to the class of 2016 who built on the experience gained from unsuccessful campaigns in the previous seasons, his players would have become wiser and more streetwise from their travels to Cairo, Khartoum and Garoua during the group stage.
Sundowns certainly have the tools to do the business and restore the good name of SA football on the continent. With six of the last eight remaining teams in the competition coming from North Africa, Mokwena may also think about inviting a number of fans armed with green lasers to his team’s training in preparation for what’s likely to await them in enemy territory.
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