JOHANNESBURG - Three mistakes, three goals and just after the hour mark Mamelodi Sundowns were down for the count and Barcelona had done what they were expected to do – easily brush aside the Brazilians.
Lionel Messi wasn’t even on the field by the time Barcelona were 3-0 up. The Argentine started on the bench due to the minor knock he was carrying, giving Percy Tau a head start in the Percy vs Messi duel. Tau turned the sold-out crowd here into lions as they roared for his every touch. But Barcelona were the real lions, devouring Sundowns in an international friendly that’s part of the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations.
The Brazilians could have used some Madiba Magic in an uphill battle against the Spanish champions. In the absence of the magic from the late former President, Sundowns had to make do with Tau magic.
But Sundowns’ talisman was without his magic wand. He was starved of the ball through Barcelona’s good pressing game. In the moments Tau had the ball he showed glimpses of his magic but it wasn’t enough. He broke free early into the match thanks to his pace and tried to cheekily chip the ball over Marc-Andre ter Stegen but it didn’t have enough power behind it.
The Percy vs Messi “show” was a damp squib. Tau struggled to take a leading role and the Argentine was on the bench for the better part of this match. Messi however easily won this “contest” as he received loud applauses by just warming up. When he entered on the 73rd minute this stadium looked like a disco light, brightly lit by flash lights from adoring fans who wanted to capture a moment of arguably the best player of his generation.
The fans chanted Messi’s name at the start of the second half, demanding the introduction of the man that most people here came to see. While Messi was on the bench, Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez gave the fans reasons to cheer with their two early goals. Both those goals came because of an error from Soumahoro Bangaly at the back.
The third Barcelona goal also came from a defensive error, a sloppy pass at the back that was punished by Andre Gomes. The Catalan giants made Sundowns pay for those mistakes, offering them a free lesson on how costly any slip-up is in the international stage.
Sundowns’ coach Pitso Mosimane was calm for most of this match. He had already resigned himself to the fact that Sundowns would lose to Barcelona, an uncharacteristic statement from a man who always backs his team. But it wasn’t a statement of cowardice, he was being in touch with reality. With that realisation at the back of his mind, all Mosimane wanted from his players was for them to put on a decent show and not let the Spanish giants walk all over them. Sibusiso Vilakazi stepped up and scored the consolation goal.
Sundowns learnt valuable lessons, like the need for a reliable centreback if they are to go far in the Caf Champions League. The Brazilians’ shortcomings in defence in the domestic league are masked by their strong attack and the fact that few teams go toe-to-toe with them. They buckle under pressure from strong opponents. This is what happened here last night.