Sundowns’ goal is to make the second leg an exercise

RULANI Mokwena and his players take aim tonight at Young Africans in the CAF Champions League. | BACKPAGEPIX

RULANI Mokwena and his players take aim tonight at Young Africans in the CAF Champions League. | BACKPAGEPIX

Published Mar 30, 2024


RULANI Mokwena and his players said all the right things ahead of Mamelodi Sundowns’ CAF Champions League quarterfinal, first leg clash against Young Africans in Dar es Salaam tonight.

“We are playing against an incredibly good side that did extremely well in the Confed Cup,” Mokwena said of the team popularly referred to as Yanga.

Centre-back Brian Onyango said they expected a difficult match.

“They have a very strong team and we know what they can do. Reaching the quarterfinal was not by chance, they worked hard to get here,” he said.

His namesake Denis Onyango – the veteran goalkeeper – concurred: “We are playing a very good team, that has lots of quality. They played in the Confederation Cup final and they could have won it.”

Of course, all of that is true. Notwithstanding, the reality is that as good a side as Yanga are being made out to be, they are no match for a Sundowns side that should progress to the semifinal of the continent’s premier club knock-out competition like they did last year.

Granted football is fickle at the top and shock results are common course. But anything less than a Sundowns victory tonight, and in the second leg in Pretoria on Friday, and Mokwena and his men would have failed.

As it is, the 2016 champions should render the tie a no-contest by winning tonight’s match, to leave the second leg merely academic. This is the goal that goalkeeper Onyango says they have. Speaking at the pre-match media conference Friday, the Ugandan legend said they would love nothing more than to secure a semifinal ticket even before the second leg is played.

“We need to make our supporters back home happy. We need to kill the game off here and make sure that when Young Africans come to Pretoria, we have an upper hand.”

It is Mokwena’s intention too, but he is more pragmatic: “Ideally you want to try do everything you can to finish the game in the first leg, but we know how difficult it can be. The opponent is a very good opponent. You watch all the home games in the group stage and they play extremely different to how they play away. It will be difficult to finish the tie in the first leg because they are a team that can create a chance at any time.”

Following their winning the inaugural African Football League (AFL) last year, Sundowns are among the favourites to win the Champions League. And with their hoodoo team Wydad Casablanca having been shockingly knocked out in the group phase, there can be no denying that this is the South African champions’ best chance of adding a second star above their club crest.

Overcoming Yanga, notwithstanding the fact that the Tanzanians are having their best Champions league run ever, should thus be a given for the team that were unbeaten in last year’s campaign – their exit coming via the away goal rule.

They are yet to lose in this campaign and even though Yanga have a number of international players in their line-up, Sundowns should still prove too strong for them – even in what should be a hostile stadium packed to the rafters by a partisan home crowd.

It is the kind of pressure Sundowns thrive on.

“No, we are used to playing under pressure,” Brian Onyango said with regards to news that Yanga will be giving their supporters free entry into the stadium.

“At Sundowns, pressure is our surname. We are used to it, so in terms of people saying it will be hostile and dangerous, we have the experience of such.”

It is not that Sundowns are taking anything for granted. Far from it, for even though they are outright favourites, Mokwena knows his team cannot afford to be complacent.

“You are only as good as your last performance. If we rest too much on our laurels we will be in trouble. So we are going to go into the game and rely on our type of football and also trust in our abilities. We know we are a good team and we are an extremely ambitious club. We want to write our own history. The plan is to win the match.”

And they should win it. The fact they believe Yanga are “an incredibly good and strong team” notwithstanding.

The match is at 8pm South African time.