JOHANNESBURG – Hlompho Kekana remembers the last time Mamelodi Sundowns lost two league games in a row with a tinge of disappointment and an abundance of optimism, as he knows how the Brazilians bounced back from that slump.
Two seasons ago, Sundowns lost to Mpumalanga Black Aces (the team John Comitis bought to form Cape Town City) and Golden Arrows.
Sundowns’ fans reacted like their world was coming to an end.
They planned a protest against coach Pitso Mosimane, with which they carried through even after the Brazilians beat Ajax Cape Town 3-2, calling for Mosimane’s axing.
The Brazilians kept Mosimane, and that win over the Urban Warriors started a 19-match unbeaten run in all competitions, leading to their record-breaking league triumph and Telkom Knockout glory.
On Sunday afternoon in the last 16 in East London against Chippa United at Sisa Dukashe Stadium, Sundowns start the journey of trying to win the Telkom Knockout for the first time since 2015.
The Brazilians come into this match after two straight league losses.
“I remember the season we won the league, we also lost two matches in a row and we responded emphatically,” Kekana said.
“We’ve been in this situation before. We need to make sure that we defend well and we handle the situation better than we did in the past two games. We didn’t play badly.
“The only challenge that we had is that we didn’t defend well. At this level, we have to be at our best all the time. The response from training has been positive.
“The problem is that we aren’t used to losing. We are a team of expectations so every loss hits hard. Over the years we have achieved so much.
“We are the team, at the moment, that everyone expects to win every match. But the reality says we can’t win every match.
“I am glad we are having these challenges now, so that we quickly recover and get back to winning ways.”
Sundowns’ match against the Chilli Boys will be Kekana’s 202nd start in the colours of the African champions.
The Brazilians’ captain joins an illustrious list of players with over 200 starts at Sundowns – Esrom Nyandoro, Michael Manzini, Surprise Moriri, Themba Mnguni and Daniel ‘Mabush’ Mudau, who shares a nickname with Kekana.
“It’s nice to have so many games under my belt,” Kekana said.
“As a footballer, I always wanted to contribute to the team. I remember my first game for Sundowns, against Wits in Mbombela.
“I knew that there would be many games to come. I challenged myself to make sure that I contribute towards the team’s success. I am looking forward to the many games to come.”
In those over 200 matches, the night he lifted the Caf Champions League in Alexandria a year ago ranks as Kekana’s most memorable moment.
He couldn’t repeat that this year, as the Brazilians were knocked out of the quarter-finals by Moroccan giants Wydad Casablanca.
Playing football non-stop for the last three seasons has taken a toll on the players physically. But that loss to Casablanca hurt them mentally.
“To be honest, as players, we were disappointed because we expected to do better,” Kekana said.
“As professionals, we have to make sure we take the punch and move on quickly because there are so many games to come. I have seen Sundowns losing important matches before. That one match can’t define us and suddenly make us a bad team.
“We need to make sure we move quickly from that situation and we start winning matches, especially here at home (where we haven’t won a domestic league match this season).
“We can’t change the past. We can’t change what happened in Morocco. All we can do is to make sure that we take lessons from that defeat and move forward.”