Sundowns bow out in CAF Champions League quarter-final stage.
JOHANNESBURG – Pitso Mosimane covered his face with his hands, shook his head and then looked at the clear Pretoria sky as if asking for divine intervention. He shrugged, shook his body like a toddler denied candy and kicked the air.
Even though Ricardo Nascimento’s miss was just four minutes into the match – leaving Sundowns with at least 86 minutes to score three unanswered goals to advance to the semifinals of the CAF Champions League – Mosimane knew that that miss could be costly in the greater scheme of things. It proved to be the case as Sundowns bowed out in the quarterfinals at the hands of Al-Ahly due to them not taking their chances.
The Brazilians had done everything right early into the match. They caught Al-Ahly sleeping with a clever free-kick that was played short by Gaston Sirino to put Nascimento one-on-one with Al-Ahly goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy.
The Brazilian centreback blasted the ball into the Egyptian goalminder who kept the Red Devils in the game. Nascimento’s miss must have been on Mosimane’s mind when Al-Ahly took the lead through Lebogang Maboe’s own goal. The Sundowns’ striker directed Ali Maaloul’s free-kick into his own net, easing the pressure that the hosts had put on the eight-time African champions.
That goal meant Sundowns had to score four to get the better of Al-Ahly who had won the first leg of this tie by 2-0 in Cairo a week ago. The tough obstacle that Sundowns had to overcome turned into a mountain steeper and higher than Mount Kilimanjaro.
They had a quick response through Sirino who played like a man possessed. The Uruguayan covered every inch of Al-Ahly’s half, bulldozing men twice his size and bamboozling the Egyptians who had a simple plan – contain Sundowns.
Al-Ahly showed their experience in how they managed the game. They stole every second they could, especially El-Shenawy who gingerly restarted play after every Sundowns’ attack. That and Al-Ahly’s confrontational nature frustrated the hosts. The Brazilians protested but then went on with the business as they expected this.
This was a Champions League masterclass. Sundowns put their feet on Al-Ahly’s neck from the onset – but the Egyptians, with more Champions League final appearances than any other team, kept the deadly Brazilians at bay with their calm defending.
This was always going to be not just a tactical and physical battle, but also a mental one with the scars of the 5-0 drubbing Al-Ahly suffered here last season still fresh. Al-Ahly fired the first salvo by writing a letter to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) voicing their displeasure at Bakary Papa Gassama being appointed the referee to officiate the match.
And there's the final whistle! The boys gave their all but it was not to be. Downs bow out in the quarter-final stage.— Mamelodi Sundowns FC (@Masandawana) March 7, 2020
Mamelodi Sundowns (26' Sirino) 1️⃣➖1️⃣ Al Ahly SC (21' Maboe O.G.)
#Sundowns #DownsLive #CAFCL pic.twitter.com/6tS4983Ssj
The no-nonsense Gambian is one of the best referees in the continent. He doesn’t crumble under pressure nor is moved by bullying tactics that North Africans are famous for. This put a spotlight on the referee, any call that would have gone against Al-Ahly would have been blown out of proportion by the Egyptians. He handled the match in a calm manner without stealing the spotlight from the players.
The contest on the pitch was won by an Al-Ahly side that did the damage in Cairo. Sundowns now have to shift their focus to domestic issues where they are still fighting for the Absa Premiership and the Nedbank Cup.
The disappointment of crashing out in the last eight of the Champions League will fire them to try and defend their league title, or finish second at worst so that they can have another shot at continental football next season.
Mamelodi Sundowns (1)1
Maboe OG 21
Al-Ahly won 3-1 on aggregate