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MAMELODI SUNDOWNS - CAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE JOURNEY Bafana Ba Style celebrating a goal against Al Ahly during their CAF Champions League clash at LoftusAuthor: Zola DodaPhotos: Gavin Barker - BackpagePixMamelodi Sundowns have qualified for the CAF Champions League 16 times during the club’s illustrious history; finishing as runners-up in 2001 before winning the competition in 2016. Three club legends – Tiyani Mabunda, Hlompho Kekana and Teko Modise – explain what makes this season’s campaign so special.Mamelodi Sundowns is one of the only two South African clubs to win the CAF Champions League. Judging by the results in the group stages so far, the team is arguably more than capable of winning the prestigious club competition for the second time.
Masandawana kicked off the 59th edition of Africa’s premier club competition with a resounding 15-1 aggregate win over La Passe from Seychelles. During the second leg at home, young Cassius Mailula who was playing in his debut CAF Champions League match, performed like a seasoned campaigner and announced his arrival with an impressive hattrick. The reward for the win was a tough draw in Group B against Coton Sport from Cameroon and familiar contenders from last years group, Sudanese side Al Hilal, along with Egyptian giants Al Ahly. After beating Al Hilal 1-0 at home in the opening match, the 2016 African champions beat Coton Sport 3-1 in Cameroon to earn maximum points in the first two matches.
The trip to Cairo came two weeks after Al Ahly returned from the FIFA Club World Cup where they lost to Real Madrid in the semi-final. The home team held the Brazilians to a 2-2 draw before dispatching five goals during a memorable 5-2 return leg at a packed Loftus Stadium. Former player and club ambassador, Tiyani ‘Shuga’ Mabunda, believes that there is something special about Sundowns’ performance this season.
“The team’s performance in the tournament this year has been special and it’s good to see that the boys are living up to the standards they have set for themselves,” said Mabunda.
Shuga spoke about the group that Sundowns found themselves in, “Our group with Al Hilal, Al Ahly and Coton Sport is not easy and you can see that the level of competition requires every team to live up to their own standard. Mamelodi Sundowns has truly shown that regardless of the difficulty of the group, we can still find a way to do well.”
He further went on to discuss the impact of the coaching staff, “Let’s give credit to them as well as the players for building a team that refuses to lose. The coaches and the players have a common goal which is to make sure that Mamelodi Sundowns is recognized, not only domestically but continentally.” Sundowns players celebrating with fans Hlompho Kekana, who was the captain of the team that lifted the 2016 CAF Champions League trophy in Alexandria, expressed his feelings on how the team has performed away from home. “For me the highlight of the tournament this season is the 2-2 draw away to Al Ahly at Cairo Stadium,” said Kekana. “Cairo is not an easy place to play in and to score two goals there is unbelievable. Looking at the way the team is playing it’s clear that they want to put the second star on the team badge.”
The former skipper went on to explain his experience, “I played at Cairo Stadium in the second leg of the 2016 Final, we were playing against a powerhouse of African football, Zamalek. The crowd is not friendly and you need a different mindset to succeed. However, Sundowns was in the right state of mind and came back with a draw.”
“Away games are difficult and different matches all together. To see Mamelodi Sundowns going as far as trying to win away matches – for me that is huge. The approach before would be to cancel every team we play against and then look for maximum points at home. But this time around it’s a different approach all together. The team is looking for maximum points, and it doesn’t matter where the team is playing. That is a big step and that is what makes a big team.”
Teko Modise shared his sentiment on how the team can improve on last year’s performance, “It’s very impressive to see Sundowns continue to do well in the CAF Champions League. If you look at it from the results stand point, the team qualified for knockout stages as number one in the group without any loss and the highest number goals last season. But unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the Final.”
“Right now, we are taking it one game at a time. Yes, the performance is very impressive and getting the huge win against Al Ahly, all those things are huge but the bigger picture still remains the same and that is to get the team to the Final.” Head Coach Rulani looking at the scoreline against Al Ahly at LoftusStand out performersCoach Rulani Mokwena has been consistent in his statement this season, that the collective team effort is what makes Mamelodi Sundowns a better team.
The three legends agree with the coach while adding the names of players who have taken their performance to the next level.
“I always wonder how coach Rulani manages to find the balance with so many players who are doing well,” says Mabunda. “Coach Rulani and his technical team are really doing an exceptional job of improving the team’s performance. You have Ronwen Williams who is playing well competing with other good goalkeepers like Kennedy Mweene, Dennis Onyango and Riyaad Pieterse.”
“There is Neo Maema and Tebogo Mokoena – both players will never put a wrong foot forward. Khuliso Mudau puts in a solid performance and Thapelo Morena can also play at left back and as a winger. There is also Cassius Mailula and Peter Shalulile who can assist each other, create and score goals. We also need to give credit to one of the senior players in the team, Themba Zwane, who after so many years he is still playing a key role and he is not slowing down.”
Modise provided additional input: “I think Neo Maema is slowly maturing into a fine player and it’s amazing to see his maturity week-in and week-out. Sphelele Mkhulise, knowing him from a young age and to see him in big games the way he shows up – the football brain that he has – he is so amazing to watch. Ronwen Williams, what surprises me the most about him are his overall qualities as a goalkeeper. His passing range, ability to read the game well and his communication skills – they are important things that I didn’t see before.”
“Marcelo Allende, being also his first season and competing in a position that is very difficult. The way he plays, it’s good to see that the team allowed him to acclimatize very quickly and be able to play his best football."
“Cassius Mailula, we want to see him continue doing great things. What helps is his ability to acclimitize easily and quickly into the first team. When they play you can see that there is no selfishness or players chasing individual glory, they are more concerned about the team winning and that is where the strength of the team lies.” Marcelo Allende celebrating with Head Coach Rulani after a winHlompho also gave his input, “To see Sundowns performing well especially with younger players like Mailula is great. If he continues to play the way he is playing, the Sky is the Limit for him. He plays like he has been playing in the tournament for a very long time.” What lies ahead In the last four campaigns, Mamelodi Sundowns, were knocked out in three quarter-finals and once in the semi-final. Modise, Kekana and Mabunda explain what lies ahead for Masandawana in the knockout stages this season.
“When you meet teams like Wydad Casablanca or Zamalek in the knockout stages it’s the same as meeting Al Ahly on the other side,” said Modise. “Those are the teams that you meet when you play CAF Champions League every season. Every game becomes a big game from now onwards especially after beating Al Ahly so convincingly at home because you now have a target on your back.”
“Teams want to beat you and that is the space that Sundowns should be at because if you want to be regarded as one of the giants on the continent you have to beat the teams that you are competing with. The standard that has been set in the 5-2 win over Al Ahly, should be one that carries the team through, irrespective of the opponents.”
Kekana added: “The knockout stages are a different ball game all together. You need a different approach but Sundowns know how to win big matches and know how to force issues when things are not going our way. For me that is a plus. The team knows that sometimes things are not going to be as smooth as we would love them to be, it has to be a results-oriented game. A team like Wydad Casablanca won the tournament recently and if we do play against them, it will not be easy.” “For me the supporters will play a crucial role because they show so much passion as they truly love the club,” adds Mabunda. “Seeing the stadium so full during matches doesn’t only encourage Mamelodi Sundowns but the entire nation as a whole because if we all come together as one and support our boys, they can perform beyond what we expect.”
“In front of a full stadium against Al Ahly we won 5-0 and recently the boys performed well and we won 5-2. There is energy that comes when you have a lot of people backing you. The supporters play a very big role and they need to be appreciated. As a player when you hear those thousands of people chanting your name you can go the extra mile. It’s really encouraging to see them coming in numbers,”Kekana concluded. Cassius Mailula during CAF Champions League match against Al Hilal at LoftusMAMELODI SUNDOWNS CAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE RECORD1994: Second Round 1999: Second Round 2000: Group Stages 2001: Runners-Up 2006: First Round 2007: Second Round 2008: Second Round 2015: First Round 2016: Winners 2017: Quarter-finalists 2018: Group Stages 2018/19: Semi-finalists 2019/20: Quarter-finalists 2020/21: Quarter-finalists 2021/22: Quarter-finalists