It wasn’t long ago that the Brazilians were paraded as the best team in Africa, having beaten Zamalek over two legs to finally get their hands on a continental trophy when not many gave them a chance.
Ethiopia’s Saint George are the visitors on Saturday night in their opening group-stage fixture, with familiar foes AS Vita from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia’s Esperance still to come.
The fact that Sundowns were only reinstated into the competition after Vita, who happen to be in Group C along with coach Pitso Mosimane’s men, were disqualified last year for fielding an illegible player, meant they could go about their business unnoticed.
“That’s changed this time,” said captain Hlompho Kekana.
“Every one on the continent knows who we are now, so our journey this time will be a lot more difficult than last year when we were crowned African champions. It’ll be uphill all the way.”
Proof that nobody will make it easier for Sundowns came as early as the game that decided if they would make it into the group stages.
Mosimane watched in horror as his side allowed Kampala Capital City to grab a crucial away goal in the first leg of their qualifying clash at Lucas Moripe Stadium earlier in March.
The Brazilians were 2-1 victors, but Geoffrey Sserunkuma’s second-half strike would then complicate things away in Uganda a week later.
It was the veteran striker who again got on the scoresheet to level matters on aggregate, but Anthony Laffor came to the rescue with an equaliser nine minutes from time to give Sundowns a shot at defending their title.
“The teams in our group will come very prepared now, knowing that we can win matches on the continent,” Kekana said.
No doubt. Vita already appreciate the quality of this Sundowns team and it’s a grudge match between the two sides, while Esperance are no slouches in these sort of tournaments as the North Africans have dominated the Champions League over the years.
Sundowns will be determined to get off on the right footing, especially after dropping two crucial points in the race for the Absa Premiership title on Wednesday night with a 2-2 draw against struggling Baroka FC.
A win there and the Brazilians would have gone into their Champions League group stages opener top of the domestic log table after leaders Bidvest Wits were thumped 3-1 by Free State Stars on the same night.
“Well, every game has got its own story,” Kekana said. “We have to be positive when we look ahead.
“What makes this game so important is because it’s a home game, and we learnt that you have to win your home games in the group stages of the Champions League.”
Mosimane has warned that Saint George could prove to be complex opponents after he’d watched them on video and had done his research on their style of play.
But the Sundowns coach won’t want to be proved right.