ATTERIDGEVILLE – Hlompho Kekana, Khama Billiat, Anthony Laffor and Yannick Zakri – all match winners for Mamelodi Sundowns on any given day – were missing for this crucial CAF Champions League group-phase fixture.
Not to give coach Pitso Mosimane any excuses, but to get a point which such a depleted side, against a team as strong as Esperance de Tunis, would have been a relief.
But it actually got worse for the tepid home side when Yassine Khenissi struck a late penalty to win it 2-1 for the visitors here on Friday night.
A week or so earlier, Sundowns had travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and brushed aside AS Vita Club 3-1 in their own backyard, proving their worth as the title holders of this coveted competition.
But on Friday night, they were a shadow of that bullish team that bullied Vita while on the road.
Without captain Kekana in midfield, Sundowns lacked the bite of a warrior and conceded a goal as early as the seventh minute, when Khenissi beat goalkeeper Denis Onyango at the near-post to give the visitors the lead with his first on the night.
He would return with what was virtually the last kick of the game to convert from the spot after a clumsy challenge by defender Bangaly Soumahoro on Ben Youssef led to a penalty.
Earlier, before they could eventually equaliser through Sibusiso Vilakazi – who looked a shade offside when he intercepted a pass from Percy Tau halfway through the first half – the Brazilians had missed the killer instinct of Laffor and Zakri, two players who were on the score-sheet in Kinshasa.
Tau was the runner we have all come to know this season, but his combination with Leonardo Castro and Vilakazi still needs a bit of work.
Castro, especially, has not been himself, with injuries ruling him out and the regular trips to his native country
While Sundowns definitely have the depth to deal with injuries and suspension to counter their gruelling schedule, it’s when all their key players are sidelined at the same time that Mosimane’s life becomes a bit complex.
To add to their woes, Sundowns also had to do without young Motjeka Madisha for the remaining few minutes of the first half and the rest of the match when the defender pulled out injured and made way for Soumahoro, who is fresh off the injury list himself and ended up costing them the game.
The first 45 minutes had felt like a Champions League fixture one would have expected it to be – an early goal, an equaliser and some aggressive challenges dished out by both sides.
But the second half was very much subdued, especially from a Sundowns point of view, with the home side yet to win any of their group stages fixtures at home.
With Esperance seemingly content with a point on the road, the Brazilians just didn’t have the firepower to force a goal that would tilt the game in their favour.
Bangaly’s tackle in the box was even more painful to swallow, considering Esperance didn’t look threatening enough to win the game at that point.
It now looks like they will have to dig a lot deeper to win this group, but might still do enough to finish as runners-up to make the quarter-finals – although Sunday’s fixture between Saint George and Vita, the other two teams in Group C, will put pressure on the reigning champions should Saint George win.