JOHANNESBURG – Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates will need to see off some of Africa's big hitters if they are to keep their hopes of conquering the content alive.
Sundowns are in Group A of the Champions League, alongside 2017 tournament winners Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Lobi Stars of Nigeria, and Ivory Coast giants ASEC Mimosas, who won the competition back in 1998 and have long been seen as one of the biggest teams on the continent.
This will mean three lengthy journeys for Masandawana – two to West Africa, and one right up to the north of the continent, which could make it tough for Sundowns to maintain their challenge on the domestic front in terms the league title and the Nedbank Cup.
The Pretoria club, African champions in 2016, will be meeting Wydad Casablanca for the third successive season, and although the two will probably be favourites to advance to the quarter-final stage, ASEC Mimosas and Lobi Stars will be anything but easy prey. In short, it's a very tricky group the South African club find themselves in.
Speaking to the Sundowns website, Downs coach Pitso Mosimane understandably adopted a positive outlook, although privately, he'll be very much aware of how big a challenge his side is in for.
"It's good to play Wydad again because all our games with them are tight. There's no team that's scored two goals. In some instances, penalties separate the two teams," he said.
"It's a good draw. We know where we [stand] when we play Wydad. The challenge of going to Wydad is flying because there are no direct flights to Casablanca. It's either you go via Europe, Accra or Senegal."
Apart from long distance flying, Sundowns must also deal with a playing surface they're unaccustomed to when they go to the Ivory Coast, which could make their home games all the more crucial.
"We haven't played ASEC in the past," the former Bafana Bafana coach said. "They play on an artificial pitch. We can’t complain about that because we have played on an artificial pitch before. They’re a tricky team to play away. They're technical and physical. Even though they're difficult away, you’ve got to win at home. In my opinion, we can get four points out of ASEC.
"The most important thing in the Champions League is winning at home. You must also make sure that in the three games away you at least get two draws. If you do that, you're guaranteed qualification in the knockout stage. The best thing you can do is win at home. We have to win at home."
Pirates, beaten Champions League finalists in 2013 and winners in 1995, arguably have an easier group, but only slightly.
Bucs are in Group B, which also includes defending champions Esperance (the Tunisian giants upset Al Ahly in the 2018 final), as well as Zimbabwean outfit FC Platinum and Guinea team Horoya AC, who are regulars in this competition.
Pirates coach Milutin Sredojevic, who reached the semifinals of the 2011 Champions League with Sudanese giants Al Hilal Omdurman, and also more recently had success with the Ugandan national team, will be relishing the challenge – indeed, it was likely that his impressive continental feats were taken into consideration when he returned for a second spell at Pirates last season.
Speaking after the draw, it was clear the Serbian already has a very good knowledge of the teams the Sea Robbers will be up against, and he's confident his team can progress.
"Orlando Pirates is satisfied that we are in a group with defending champions Esperance," he said. "They are playable team remembering that in the semi-final against Primeiro de Agosto (in October 2018), how they went through – they needed support from elsewhere (the Angolan side had felt cheated by some of the refereeing decisions) and they later won the CAF Champions League.
"[Horoya] are a team of the best players in West Africa playing in Guinea with players from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria and other countries surrounding Guinea – top class players and a well-funded team and with the highest ambition, who after reaching the quarterfinals would want to go further. We respect that, but at the same moment, we have our plans," he continued.
"They are a very good competitive team with no big names, but hard to play against - such teams that have no big names, have a point to prove. In that regard, it's a very competitive group, but we have the players with talent and quality and I believe we shall get results that will take us to the quarterfinals."
The opening round of fixtures of the Group stage are on Friday, January 11, and will see Pirates travelling to Zimbabwe to take on FC Platinum (coached by former Ajax Cape Town defender Norman Mapeza), while Sundowns will head up to Nigeria for their clash with Lobi Stars.
Their first home games come a week later (January 18), with the Brazilians hosting Wydad Casablanca, and the Buccaneers welcoming Horoya to their home ground in Soweto.
Kaizer Chiefs meanwhile continue their CAF Confederation Cup adventure away to Zambian side ZESCO United, on January 11, before the return leg at home a week later.
African News Agency (ANA)