JOHANNESBURG – Thapelo Morena has experienced the high of being an African champion and saw first-hand what it takes to win a major trophy in a hostile environment, but he doesn’t have a winner’s medal of the CAF Champions League.
The 24-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns wingback travelled with the Brazilians to Alexandria in 2016 for the second leg of the Champions League final just months after he signed from Bloemfontein Celtic. He got a chance to savour the moment and even trained on the match venue a day before their clash with Zamalek.
But he wasn’t in the squad that conquered the continent for Sundowns as he wasn’t registered for the tournament. The club opted to take players like him and Anele Ngcongca, who was on crutches, so that they could experience such a moment and be ready when they eventually have to play in this competition.
The Brazilians haven’t repeated this feat with Morena and Ngcongca in the squad. Last year they were eliminated in the quarter-finals by eventual winners Wydad Casablanca. This year it doesn’t even look like they will make it out of their group as they languish at the bottom of Group C with just two points from three games.
“The guys worked very hard that year to win the Champions League,” Morena said. “We have to do that too, to return to those heights.
“We have been doing that but we have to step up a little more. The defeat that we got in Togo was a blow and we have been working very hard to address our shortcomings and do better. We checked what we did wrong and we have been fixing that.”
The Brazilians host AS Togo-Port tonight at Lucas Moripe Stadium in their fourth match of the group stage. They have to get a win to make up ground as only three points separate them from first-placed Wydad.
Morena could start at right back or in midfield like he did in Togo last week. But Andile Jali (hamstring), Anthony Laffor (hamstring) and George Lebese (flu) won’t be in action.
“I am glad that I am now playing a bigger part in the Champions League but I am also not happy because we are in a difficult situation. I need to give a little more to the team and with an improved work rate, anything is possible,” Morena said.
This is the Brazilians’ worst start in the group stage of the Champions League since they won the tournament two years ago.
But they are still in it because Horoya and Wydad haven’t blown away the competition to create much of a gap between them and Sundowns. The Tshwane side need to start making the most of that by collecting maximum points in their two remaining home matches.
Sundowns were awful in Togo against an inferior opponent who created just one good chance and took it. Sundowns created more chances but left with nothing to show for it.
“We have learnt our lesson,” Morena said. “We need to be more clinical. We created chances but we didn’t finish them. The mistakes that we made at the back, they took their chance and that’s how they beat us.”
Sundowns also need to be willing to improvise. The Brazilians are too set in their way of outplaying their opponents that they seem unwilling to win ugly if the situation dictates. In Lome they tried to play carpet football on an artificial pitch that didn’t allow that and they were made to pay for it.
If they don’t learn from that, they can kiss their chances of advancing to the next round goodbye and Morena’s only memory of being an African champion will continue being that of him watching from the sidelines.@NJABULON