Cape Town — Hope springs eternal as Mamelodi Sundowns braced themselves for Saturday's CAF Champions League blockbuster against Al Ahly, the ‘Team of the Century', at the Cairo International Stadium (kick-off at 9pm, live on SuperSport).
The South Africans are faced with the daunting prospect of facing the most successful football club in African history. CAF (Confederation of African Football) voted the Cairo-based club the African club of the 20th century. But this has not deterred upbeat Rulani Mokwena, co-coach of Sundowns, who remains hopeful after being inspired by the disposition of players at training this week.
"When you look at where our players are, you see smiles on their faces every day," said Mokwena. "When you look at their eyes, there is a sense of relaxation, a good sense of anticipation.
“Sometimes with the universe, you have got to also put yourself in a position where the universe can think about you when it thinks about who to favour, hence the language of work ethic.”
Apart from the demeanour of the players, Mokwena was charmed by the team's posh training base in Alexandria. After last week's goalless draw against Sudan's Al-Merrikh in Cairo, Sundowns travelled northwards on a two-hour bus trip to Alexandria to set up camp at a world-class facility.
"In Alexandria, we found a home, a facility that I think we will probably start adopting a lot more, not just for the Champions League but for pre-season as a camp," said Mokwena.
“It’s a facility that’s been used by teams like Atletico Madrid. The facility allowed us to get on with the day-to-day routine that we normally do at Chloorkop. There were good recovery resources are available to us, like therapy pools, hydrotherapy pools and sonars with Himalayan salts.
"All these things assist us to ensure that as much as we work hard on the pitch, we can also retain the freshness of the players and help the bodies to come back a lot faster.
"We know it’s not going to be easy, but I’m sure the Al-Ahly camp also speaks the same language. They also have an understanding that it’s not going to be an easy game for them.”
Al Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane on Friday announced his 22-man matchday squad for Saturday, their second Group A game. Last week they played to a goalless draw against Al Hilal Omdurman in Sudan.
The big news was the inclusion of former Sundowns stand-out player Percy Tau, who has returned after a lengthy injury-enforced lay-off. It will be the first time Tau will play against Sundowns since he left for England in 2018.
"Percy Tau is 95% ready for the Sundowns game," said Al Ahly director of Football Sayed Abdel-Hafiz. "We decided to rest him in the El-Makkasa game (on Tuesday) to make sure he’s fit for the Sundowns clash.
"The coaching staff had to rest several players for the El-Makkasa game. We have four important games against Sundowns and Al-Merreikh in the Champions League, and we need our players to be ready by then.
"Even the best players in the world are benched when the coaching staff decides it. We have the motive to go for the third consecutive CAF Champions League title. No team has ever done it before."
Mosimane came under fire from the Egyptian media and Al Ahly fans for resting key players on Tuesday.
“Yes, we have to get the bodies back and I understand that someone was telling me, I don’t know how true it is, but they criticised me for giving players two days off,” said Mosimane.
“You know after this game, would know how many games are coming? Five in a row and we going to South Africa. You need one day to travel and then you train twice, come back, and when you’re back the matches continue."
Apart from Tau and Mosimane, Al Ahly striker Mozambique-born Luís Miquissone is also a Sundowns old boy. He was signed by Sundowns in January 2018 whilst Pitso Mosimane was the coach.
Mosimane, a three-time CAF Champions League-winning coach, will come up against Sundowns for the third time in the Champions League since leaving the club for Al Ahly in 2021.