Mamelodi Sundowns started their Caf Champions League campaign in the worst possible way, losing to the lowest-ranked team in their group – Nigeria’s Lobi Stars – 2-1 on Friday.
Stars beat the 2016 Champions League winners in only their second appearance in the group stage, which is the furthest they have been in this competition.
The Ortom Boys’ coach Solomon Ogbeide was bullish about his team’s chances before the match.
He did, however, admit that they were the underdogs against the former African champions.
But Ogbeide argued that Nigeria’s national team have been dominant over their South African counterparts, losing only one competitive match in a long-held rivalry that stretches beyond the football pitch and crosses into politics too.
He was confident that Stars would continue that Nigerian dominance over the South African champions. His team did just that, recording a famous win on Friday.
While Ogbeide spoke with confidence, his Sundowns counterpart Pitso Mosimane was unusually cautious, as he hadn’t seen much of the Nigerians.
But he did know that they posed a big threat from their physical presence.
The Brazilians countered Stars’ physical and aerial strength by starting with three centre-backs – Mosa Lebusa, Rivaldo Coetzee and Ricardo Nascimento – and allowed the fullbacks who are former wingers to attack with freedom.
That speed gave Sundowns the lead. A swift counter-attack from a long ball played to Gaston Sirino pierced open the burly but slow Nigerian side.
The Uruguayan wizard then put the ball on a platter for Anthony Laffor to give the visitors the lead. The Liberian, who thrives in big matches, made no mistake in the 37th minute.
But that lead was short-lived as Stars responded swiftly. Yaya Kone equalised for the Nigerians just before halftime from the penalty spot, after Ricardo Nascimento had brought down Sunday Adetunji inside his box.
Sundowns kept their composure just as they had throughout this match, not panicking, but playing the ball calmly from the back, even though they were playing on an artificial pitch.
The Nigerians were no slouches. They also kept the ball well and didn’t cower at the sight of their more successful opponents.
Stars started the second half the more dominant of the two. Samuel Mathias put them in front after a scramble in the box.
Sundowns pressed the Nigerians high up in search of an equaliser and a crucial away point, but the Nigerians stood resolute.
The Brazilians now have a mammoth task on their hands. They have to beat Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca in their next match next week.
The Moroccans are a thorn in the flesh of Sundowns. They beat them in the quarter-finals in 2017, and then went all the way to lift the Champions League trophy.
Last year Sundowns only collected one point, at home, against Wydad as they lost the away leg in Casablanca in the group stage.
What won’t help Sundowns is that they have a tricky match against struggling Maritzburg United on Wednesday before hosting the Moroccans.
This will not only test Sundowns’ mental strength, but also their resolve, as they need to pick themselves quickly if they are to do better than last season, where they crashed out in the group stage of the Champions League in a relatively easy group.