JOHANNESBURG – The last time Highlands Park faced Mamelodi Sundowns they were relegated to the NFD despite putting up a gallant effort in a 2-2 draw in Tembisa.
So you can imagine that the Lions of the North won’t enjoy the sight of the Brazilians tonight at Loftus Versfeld having bounced back to topflight football within a year of dropping a division lower.
Under coach Owen da Gama, they seemed a much more level headed outfit - none of the hasty decisions taken by management the last time to fire coach Allan Freese after just five Absa Premiership games.
In fact, Freese has formed part of a formidable technical team alongside Da Gama as they look to avoid repeating the wrongs of the past. But Sundowns are a serious threat with players such as the ever-improving Themba Zwane ready to punish any errors in defence as Highlands Park try to find their feet again.
“For us it is a must-win game,” the Brazilians midfielder said yesterday. “We are behind and other teams have played three matches and we have seen some surprises on the table. But that is how football is. Everybody has improved and they have worked hard to be where they are.”
Sundowns, the reigning league champions, do not only have to play catch up, but they are desperate to bounce back from being forced to take their qualification to the quarterfinals of the CAF Champions League right down to the wire.
After suffering a narrow 1-0 defeat in Casablanca in their final away group clash against title holders Wydad Casablanca, Zwane and his teammates need to beat Horoya of Guinea to guarantee their place in the next round.
Tonight’s fixture against Highlands Park and Saturday’s first leg MTN8 clash away to bogey side Cape Town City are somewhat of a target practice.
“We have been talking about not taking our chances against Wydad. But we know what to do, and we know how to improve. It will not be easy against Highlands Park, but we have studied them, their weak points and their strong points,” Zwane said.
“They will come at us like any team that plays against Sundowns, but we know not to take things lightly. The so-called smaller teams have worked hard, and that can be said about a lot of other clubs. They are smaller only by name.”
Da Gama and his men drew their opening two fixtures away to Orlando Pirates, where they benefited from an own goal early in the game, and another stalemate in their own backyard against fellow promoted outfit Black Leopards.
It will be a lot more tricky to get anything at Sundowns, a side that confirmed their relegation two seasons ago when they needed all three points to cling to their PSL status.