JOHANNESBURG - Even the great escape artist Harry Houdini would look at Mamelodi Sundowns’ position in the Caf Champions League and lose faith that they can come out of it alive and advance to the knockout stage.
The Brazilians languish at the bottom of Group C at the halfway mark with just two points from their first three games. This is their worst start in the group stage since they conquered the continent two years ago. But it’s not their worst start of all time. That dubious honour is held by the class of 2001. They drew their first game against Esperance, lost to Julius Berger of Nigeria and were held to a goalless draw by TP Mazembe. They bounced back to collect seven points from their last three games and then went all the way to the final.
This generation have to mount a similar comeback if they are to reach the knockout stage for the third year in a row because the gap between them and the top two teams in the group is just three points. But what makes the situation dire is that Sundowns’ best attribute in continental football, their attitude, has been their biggest weakness in this campaign.
The Brazilians “won” against AS Togo-Port before they even stepped into the pitch on Tuesday afternoon in Lome against the whipping boys of Group C. The talk was that they would pick up six points from the minnows in their back-to-back meetings to muscle their way into the top two. But that confidence, which pushes them against the big guns on the continent, didn’t translate to their performance on the pitch in Togo as they undermined their opponents.
Sundowns were disjointed and lacked the creative spark and killer instinct that’s needed at this stage of the competition. It also didn’t help that their technical team insisted on playing carpet football on a bumpy artificial pitch that made controlling the ball difficult. The Brazilians’ approach was one-dimensional.
“West African teams are physical,” Sundowns attacker Anthony Laffor said a day before the match. “But as a team, we don’t focus much on what other teams can do; we look at what can we do. We do our own tactics. Most of the times the games that we win, we win them because of our ball possession. We play our own way. We just have to stick to our game because at the end of the day good football wins you games.”
That’s not true. Good football doesn’t always win. Sundowns must accept that and be prepared to win ugly in some matches. They adopted this mind-set in the Absa Premiership last season and they won it. They need to also adopt it in the Champions League, which could lead to them getting the best out of Jeremy Brockie.
The misfiring New Zealand striker was lethal at SuperSport United in the domestic league and finished as the top goalscorer in last year’s Caf Confederation Cup because Matsatsantsa a Pitori played to his strength. SuperSport played plenty of crosses and long balls to Brockie, who pounced on them. He must step up after a slow start to his time at Chloorkop, but the team also need to meet him halfway by playing balls into the box in a way that will bring the best out of him.
Brockie hinted that the understanding between what’s needed from him and how his teammates can bring the best out of him is coming right. That needs to quickly come to the fore if Sundowns are to produce a great escape in their last three matches, away to Wydad Casablanca and at home against AS Togo-Port and Horoya.