Harare – LAST year, they were mocked as back door champions, who have been wearing borrowed robes since their coronation as kings in Egypt, but South African giants Mamelodi Sundowns are now just five matches away from becoming only the fourth club in history to successfully defend their African champions’ crown.
The Brazilians were the only club to win the first leg of the 2017 Total CAF Champions League quarter-final showdowns at the weekend after a hard-fought 1-0 win over 19-time Moroccan champions Wydad Casablanca in Pretoria on Sunday.
Three other matches ended in draws, setting the stage for explosive second leg battles this weekend, with record African champions Al Ahly of Egypt away in Tunisia for a duel against Esperance and their Libyan namesakes, Al Ahly Tripoli, also returning to Tunisia for a date against Etoile du Sahel.
Mozambican debutantes, Ferroviario de Maputo, who were given a new lease of life in the tournament after the disqualification of Sudanese giants – Al Hilal and al Merreikh – saw them being promoted into the quarter-finals, despite having been eliminated in the group stages, visit Algeria for a date against USM Alger.
The Beira side and the Pretoria giants are the only clubs from outside North Africa still in the running for the CAF Champions League this year.
All the West and East African sides have been swept away by the tide in yet another confirmation that the game on the continent now appears to be a battle of supremacy between the Southern and Northern African football giants.
Ferroviario will be underdogs in that encounter although the never-say-die spirit, which they displayed in the first leg on the shores of the Indian Ocean last weekend, scoring a last-gasp goal to force a 1-1 draw, shows they are ready for the big fight.
That result meant that USM Alger have failed to win any of the two matches they have played in the Champions League in Southern Africa this year after the Algerian powerhouse crashed to a 1-2 defeat at the hands of Zimbabwe champions CAPS United in the group phase of the competition.
“We played well in this game. However, I have to remind everyone that we were playing against a very strong team, with experience in this kind of competitions,’’ Rogerio Gonclaves, the Ferroviario de Beira head coach, told the official CAF website.
“It is all open and in the second leg, we will fight in our quest to progress. We had many chances to score goals. They (USM Alger) had that unique clear opportunity and scored due to a distraction from my defenders. In all we were the better side.
“I have respect for USM Alger, but we want to do our work. The fact that USMA is a great team, does not intimidate us. Rather, it inspires respect and my players will be up to the task.
“At this stage, we have to fight to overcome any struggles to go as far as possible.’’
USM Alger, who are owned of one of Algeria’s richest men, are under the guidance of Belgian coach Paul Put, the man who masterminded Burkina Faso’s successful 2013 AFCON finals campaign in South Africa were the West Africans reached the final only to lose to Nigeria.
“We played against a well-organised team with some key players, who can make a difference in decisive moments of the game,’’ said the Belgian.
“We have taken note of their play and the second leg will be different. We had to play with a low intensity because of the condition of the pitch.
“My players were also tired because of the long travel hours and these factors ensured my players could not give off their best. We cannot expect a different result other than victory in the return leg.’’
Just like Ferroviario de Beira, Sundowns also have a North African assignment this weekend to try and keep alive their Champions League dream with a draw in Morocco enough for coach Pitso Mosimane and his troops to qualify for the semi-finals.
The former Bafana Bafana gaffer has been disappointed by comments from rivals who have been mocking them as back-door champions since Sundowns won their first Champions League crown last year.
It emanates from the fact that Sundowns had been knocked out of the tournament by Congolese giants AS Vita, and relegated into the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup, where they were again eliminated by Ghanaian side Medeama before the group stages.
However, when AS Vita were disqualified from the Champions League, a door was opened for Sundowns to return to the tournament and Mosimane and his men took full advantage by going all the way to win the title.
Sundowns carry a 1-0 first leg advantage in their quarter-final battle against Wydad Casablanca.
“Look it’s not too good. It’s a slender lead but I rather go there with a 1-0 than 0-0,” said Mosimane. ‘’I didn’t have fire power. I had nobody on the bench.
“I had to play Thabo Nthethe as a central midfielder. You know when you don’t have Khama, Laffor, George Lebese. So I’m thin upfront. So I played with Oupa as a striker in the last five minutes.
“They frustrated us but we had to dodge the offside. We’ve got our way of doing it. Percy does, Khama does it. They look offside but they are not offside. We dodge the line.
“We had to get our integrity back‚ because remember the humour around it about‚ ‘Ah these guys qualified through the back door’.
“And Vita were saying – ‘that’s our Cup – we’ve won the Cup’. And this back door story now‚ I mean we have reached the last eight with no back door‚ I think that’s integrity.And I was praising the players for really making sure the way we did.”