By Deolu Akingbade.
Game of the Week: Mamelodi Sundowns 1, Al Hilal Omdurman 0
On Saturday, we got a glimpse of a true favorite who could lift the Champions League title in the summer. It was not at Cairo International Stadium where Belouizdad edged past Zamalek, nor at Stade Mohamed V where Raja demolished Vipers SC. And I’m not talking about Al Ahly or Wydad, who had some rough times in the Club World Cup. I’m talking about Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, where Sundowns dominated Al-Hilal Omdurman en route to a 1-0 win.
There’s a lot to like about this season’s Masandwana. They lead South Africa’s Premier Soccer League by 23 points and boasted a 12-game winning streak entering their marquee matchup with Al Hilal. With stars like Peter Shaluile and Thapelo Morena at their disposal, Sundowns were one of the pre-season favorites to win it all.
Their first test was against Sudan side Al-Hilal, who narrowly lead the Sudan Premier League by two points. They’re enjoying moderate success, having gone on a five-match unbeaten run prior to the Champions League showdown, but away from home against one of the continent’s biggest sides, Al Hilal would likely be happy with a draw.
Sundowns lined up in a 3-4-3 shape. Star stopper Ronwen Williams played between the posts, supported by a back three of Khuliso Mudau, Gomolemo Kekana, and Mothobi Mvala. Teboho Mokoena and Sphelele Mkhulise joined forces in the center midfield, while Aubrey Modiba on the left and Marcelo Allende on the right rounded out the four-man midfield. Shaluile started in the number nine position, while Neo Maema and Cassius Mailula completed the three-striker attack.
Al-Hilal took the pitch in a 4-2-3-1 shape seeking to frustrate the dynamic Sundowns attack. Ali Abu-Eshrein started, with the center-back pair of Ousmane Diouf and Altayeb Abdalla in front of him. Left-back Ibrahim Imoro and right-back Athar Eltahir rounded out the four-man defense. Manager Florent Ibengé decided to field somewhat a double pivot in Abdul Ajagun and Walieldin Khidir, while new signing David Abagna played more like an attacking midfielder rather than a central one.
Left winger Anas Saeed and right-winger Makabi Lilepo supported number nine Mohamed Abdelrahman as they looked to squeeze water from stone and get a point out of the difficult away fixture.
What first popped into my head as I watched the match was that Sundowns’ defining style, a hybrid between Spanish tiki-taka and the Brazilian ginga, was in full effect. When they did not have the ball (which was rare), Sundowns pressed high to win it back.
One player on the wings; usually Maema or Mailula, would intensely press the first pass from the start, while Shaluile would lurk to either discourage a following pass or trap the receiver. It led to some very good counter-attacking chances, a lot of possession, and a number of blunders for the Al-Hilal back line.
In possession, Sundowns looked to push the ball towards the middle of the park. Modiba and Allende joined the attack, while Mokoena and Mkhulise stayed and helped push the ball towards the Al-Hilal goal. Thanks to Al-Hilal’s pessimistic low block, one of the outside backs(Mudau or Mvala) joined the midfield at times, while Kekana and the other outside back would play the ball around and keep counter-attacking threats minimal.
Sundowns’ real attacking dangers came from the wide midfielders in Modiba and especially Montevideo City arrival Allende. The two combined for 199 touches thanks to their ability to cut inside and make life hard for defenders. Allende drew several fouls in dangerous territory with his incisive movement and Modiba was a key link between the defense and attack.
Allende and Modiba’s lethality with the ball made it easy to displace defenders, create space, and make easy overloads in the final third. With their presence, Sundowns could combine in dangerous areas to get inside the boxes and make chances That, and the creativity of Sundowns’ front three, helped give the South Africans the upper hand. I don’t know how Sundowns did not score four, much less limit their goal count to just one.
That is not to say Al-Hilal did not have its own tactical complexities. Al-Hilal, thanks to their opponent’s big budget and prestigiousness, knew that possession would be scarce. Their goal, as is usual with smaller teams facing contenders, was to play quickly and directly for crosses and sit in a conservative low block to (try to) deny Sundowns chances.
The January signing in Abagna was key in this; his defensive tenacity and decent offense meant he could spark counter-attacks by getting the ball in midfield. Out of possession, Ibengé’s side would play in a cynically half-hearted high press. Abdelrahman and Lilepo played up top, while Ajagun, Abagna, and Khidir played in a three-man midfield. Saeed man-marked Shaluile, which not only explained Shaluile’s relative uninvolvement on offense, but also the frequent offensive overloads that worked in favor for Sundowns.
The offense was uninspiring at best, and simply flawed at worst when they met Sundowns. When the defense could get past the Sundowns press, which was not often, they looked for a wide man; usually Saeed or Lilepo; who could torch a defender and warp the defense out of shape.
Oftentimes, thanks to their low block and well-organized back line, no one was there to support the wide man, which led to either a bad pass to the waiting Abdelrahman or a simple turnover. It meant that Al-Hilal’s core four attackers – Abdelrahman, Saeed, Lilepo, and Abagna rarely, if ever, saw the ball, as they received a combined total of just 77 touches.
Mailula’s 25th-minute goal perfectly described the full 90 minutes. After dropping deep to receive the ball from the back line, Mkhulise dribbled past a porous Al-Hilal defense, laying it off to Maema, who loitered outside the box. After Maema sent a big shot towards the Al-Hilal goal and Abdullah Abou spilled the shot to the center of the box, Mailula came in to tap the ball into the net.
Clumsiness, unsolved issues, unsynchronized team play from Al-Hilal as they face Al Ahly on Saturday, and a flashy, poised Sundowns looking to answer some ominous questions looming as they return to play Coton Sport on Friday.
CAF Champions League
Zamalek 0, CR Belouizdad 1
Zamalek had a rough start as they looked to bounce back from their shaky start in the Egyptian Premier League. A crucial Group D clash pitting Zizo’s Zamalek and Mrezigue’s Belouizdad was sure to an exciting match. Although the match did not have a lot goals, it boasted a lot of the quality. Cameroon U17 international Leonel Wamba netted a 57th-minute penalty to send Belouizdad to the top of Group D. Zamalek will face Al-Merrikh in their second group stage game as Belouizdad gears up for a fixture against Esperance de Tunis.
Raja 5, Vipers SC 0
Uganda upstarts Vipers SC received a harsh welcome to the Champions League in their first continental club appearance. Despite taking down TP Mazembe in qualifying, they could not reclaim their form as they received an embarassing beat-down in front of an ecstatic Stade Mohamed V crowd.
Hamza Khabba and Jamal Harkass started the scoring in the 5th and 11th minutes respectively, while Mohamed Zrida gave the Green Eagles an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the 38th minute. Yousri Bouzok and Roger Aholou added the cherry on top of the cake with goals in the 59th and 71st minute. Vipers will face Horoya at home as they search for vengeance while Raja looks to continue its good form with an away match against Simba.
Petro Atletico 0, JS Kabylie 0
Petro Atletico and JS Kabylie toiled to a scoreless draw in their first game of the CAF Champions League. Despite Kabylie approaching the relegation zone in the Algeria Ligue 1, they put up a modest performance, allowing just nine total shots from their Angolan opposition.
But you still have a feeling that Petro Atletico should have found the net, especially with their 66% possession and 200 more total shots. Petro Atletico searches for its first win away at Vita Club while JS Kabylie faces Wydad on Friday.
ES Tunis 1, Al-Merrikh 0
Esperance secured a first-round win over Al-Merrikh to get to second in the Champions League. Esperance, widely tipped to make a deep run into the competition, had some strange struggles as they faced an underdog Al-Merrikh side. It took them 94 minutes to find the winning goal, but it was still appreciated all the same.
Mohamed Amine Tougai’s last-minute, chaotic winner gives Ersperance a big advantage going into their away clash against Belouizdad. Al-Merrikh will look for their first points of the campaign against Zamalek.
Horoya 1, Simba 0
Horoya defeated Simba 1-0 at home to get in second in what could be a decisive lead going into the latter stretches of the competition. Although we did not have the brute displays of offense we saw in other matches (both sides combined for six shots on target), young Senegalese winger made the difference for Horoya with an 18th-minute header off a corner. Horoya will travel to Kampala in Uganda to face Vipers, while Simba plays Raja at home in what should be a very difficult fixture.
CAF Confederation Cup
TP Mazembe 3, Réal Bamako 1
Jephté Kitambala 24′
Alex Ngonga 38′
Patient Mwamba 90+4′
Réal Bamako Goals:
Souleymane Coulibaly 32′
Mazembe plays Young Africans away from home next.
Réal Bamako plays US Monastir at home next.
Marumo Gallants 4, Al Akhdar 1
Marumo Gallants Goals:
Lesiba Nku 5′
Ranga Chivaviro 21′, 57′
Joseph Malongoane 85′
Réal Bamako Goals:
Akram Ali Mohammed Alzawi 80′
Marumo Gallants plays Saint-Eloi Lupopo away from home next.
Réal Bamako plays US Monastir at home next.
ASEC Mimosas 0, DC Motema Pembe 0
ASEC plays Rivers United away from home next.
Motema Pembe plays Diables Noirs at home next.
ASKO Kara 1, Future 1
ASKO Kara Goals:
Kangnivi Ama Tchoutchoui 3′
Mohamed Farouk 81′
ASKO plays FAR Rabat away from home next.
Future plays Pyramids at home next.
Diables Noirs 3, Rivers United 0
Diables Noirs Goals:
Wunda Ngana 30′
Jaures Ngombe 32′
Domi Jaurès Massoumou 37′
Diables Noirs plays Motema Pembe away from home next.
Rivers United plays ASEC at home next.
US Monastir 2, Young Africans 0
US Monastir Goals:
Mohamed Saghraoui 10′
Boubacar Traoré: 16
US Monastir plays Réal Bamako away from home next.
Young Africans plays TP Mazembe at home next.
USM Alger 3, Saint-Eloi Lupopo 0
USM Alger Goals:
Khaled Bousseliou 7′, 65′
Aimen Mahious, 82′
USM Alger plays Al Akhdar away from home next.
Saint-Eloi Lupopo plays Marumo Gallants at home next.
Pyramids 2, FAR Rabat 2
Mostafa Fathi 1′
Abdallah Said: 75′
FAR Rabat Goals:
Mustapha Sahd: 73′
Pyramids plays Future away from home next.
FAR Rabat plays ASKO at home next.