Can Mamelodi Sundowns overcome Wydad AC jinx to march into CAF Champions League final?

Sundowns players warm up during the CAF Champions League 2022/23 semi-final training session held at Mohamed V Stadium in Casablanca

Sundowns players warm up during the CAF Champions League 2022/23 semi-final training session held at Mohamed V Stadium in Casablanca. Photo: Nour Akanja/BackpagePix

Published May 13, 2023


Cape Town – Now that the quarter-final "jinx" that was fast threatening to undermine Mamelodi Sundowns’ status as one of Africa’s football giants has been broken, the Brazilians are looking to go two steps further and become continental champions for only the second time.

Knocked out in the last-eight phase of the CAF Champions League on four occasions since winning the competition back in 2016, Sundowns were – somewhat rightly – termed "group phase stars who don’t know how to negotiate their way past the quarters".

Their former coach, Pitso Mosimane, who was in charge when they beat Zamalek seven years ago to earn the right to emblazon a star above the club badge, mocked them after they had beaten his Al Ahly twice in the round-robin stage last season.

Jingles said: “The group stages will deceive you all the time. You can win six out of six and stay number one, but let’s go to the knock-out stages. If they can beat Al Ahly home and away, they must just as well win it. If they don’t win it, it’s a PSG story again, akere.”

He was proven right as he took Ahly all the way to the final, while Sundowns fell to Petro Luanda in the quarter-finals. The year before, Mosimane had sent his former club packing out of the competition via a 3-1 aggregate victory in the – you guessed it – quarter-finals. The South African champions’ participation in the continent’s premier club knock-out competition had ended in exactly the same fashion in 2020 – a 3-1 quarter-final defeat to Al Ahly.

Current Sundowns coach Rhulani Mokwena, who had assisted Mosimane in their triumphant campaign in 2016, has finally broken the quarter-final spell and is chasing glory. Speaking during yesterday’s pre-match press conference for their semi-final first leg clash at Wydad Casablanca this evening, the man they call "the South African Mourinho" expressed delight at having overcome a hitherto seemingly unclearable hurdle.

“This is the first time in a very, very long time that we appear in the semifinals. When the Champions League started, it was said that Sundowns always play good football; Sundowns always does very, very well in the group stages only to cash out in the quarterfinals.

"We have gone and done better this season and we are extremely proud to get this far. But it means nothing if we don’t continue the performance with integrity and credibility for the club because it is an important competition for the club and we have to keep things in this manner.”

To achieve that, they have to get the better of a Wydad Casdablanca side that has become a serious adversary of theirs in recent years – the two sides having previously faced each other on ten previous occasions in four campaigns.

As they seek to put one foot into the final, Sundowns will have to overcome yet another jinx – that of never having won away to Wydad, who host them this evening in the cauldron that is the Stade Mohamed V.

It is familiar territory for the Brazilians, whose best result in the 67 000-seater arena was a goalless draw in 2020, their other four visits to Casablanca having ended in defeat.

A match at the Stade Mohamed V is an electrified occasion, the partisan crowd helping create an atmosphere that can scare even the strongest of teams on the continent.

Mokwena is fully aware of what awaits them: “The atmosphere is going to be important. How we absorb it and how we adapt to it. Of course this team has shown in Cairo (against Al Ahly) that we can play in front of a hostile away crowd. We did that in Algeria too (against CR Belouizdad), where we played in front of a hostile and aggressive crowd. In the Champions League you have to get used to always playing (tough) away matches, especially in this type of competition where lots of the strong teams are (participating).”

He admits that part of Wydad’s recent success in the Champions League has been due to the partisan support they enjoy in their home matches, but he wants his team to overcome that and march on to the final.

“They are helped by the crowd of course. But we are happy to be here and we want to stay in this competition for long. That means we must play in every game and try to win. At the same time we want to enjoy this moment, give it our best and create long-lasting memories. And that comes with performing in front of an energetic and very intimidating crowd. But I can assure you that we will enjoy it because that’s the energy it gives to our team and we will try our best to put up a very, very good performance because without that we know we don’t have a chance to win the football match.”


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