Although Mamelodi Sundowns have been knocked out of African cup competitions twice already this year, the South African champions could on Wednesday become the first club to advance to the semi-final stage of the CAF Champions League.
The Brazilians, as they are known, were knocked out on the away-goal rule by Congolese team AS Vita Club in the play-off round to the showpiece event of African club football and then suffered the same fate against Ghanaian team Medeama in the Confederations Cup. But given a lifeline when Vita Club were thrown out of the competition for fielding an ineligible player, Sundowns have grabbed the bull by the horns and won three games in a row – including away matches in North Africa against ES Setif and five-time champions Zamalek.
Though the result against Setif was annulled after the 2014 champions were disqualified from the competition following crowd trouble during and after their match against Sundowns, the South Africans lead Group B with six points from their two matches and need just a point at home against Zamalek to guarantee their place in the round of the last four.
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane said his team had managed to take their championship-winning league form into the continental competition. “We are riding on the momentum of the league, we are just flowing with what happened in the league. We are just in that whirlpool, a beautiful whirlpool. We just keep going and it’s a very good dream, which we hope we don’t wake up from. So, let’s keep dreaming the beautiful dream.”
In-form midfielder Tiytani Mabunda though, has warned his team-mates that they should not be over-optimistic. “We haven’t achieved anything as yet," he said.
The home side has received a boost by the availability of attacking star Keagan Dolly, who has been given permission to join his South African U-23 team-mates after the Champions League match as they prepare for the Olympic Games.
With three points from their two games, Zamalek will be looking to avoid defeat to keep the pressure on the third team in the group, Nigerian club Enyimba, who have lost both their matches so far. The White Knight's job in South Africa will not have been made any easier by the absence of attacking midfielder Mohamed Ibrahim, who picked up a serious ankle injury in the first match against Sundowns and is expected to be out of action for three months.
Al Ahly looking for a miracle
In Group A, Wydad Casablanca and Zesco United are in the driving seat as they lead the standings with seven and six points respectively. ASEC Mimosas have three points, while record champions Al Ahly have just one and need something akin to a footballing miracle to stay in contention for a ninth title. The Red Devils are away to Wydad, who held them to a goalless draw in Alexandra in their last match.
Ahly coach Martin Jol, who defiantly refused to throw in the towel after the draw at home against Wydad, has included new signing Marwan Mohsen in his travelling squad. The striker was only signed from Ismaily this week, but as he was not cup-tied, he could be thrown into the deep end in Morocco. Wydad, were also in a race to register a new signing as the club asked the African confederation whether they could include Nigerian forward Chisom Chikatara, who finally joined the club after a protracted transfer saga involving Wydad and Abia Warriors, in the squad.
The other group game sees Zambian surprise package Zesco United travel to Côte d'Ivoire for their return fixture against ASEC Mimosas. George Lwandamina’s side won the home leg in Ndola 3-1 and are well placed to ensure their first-ever place in the semi-finals. Leaving nothing to chance, they conducted their last few training sessions on artificial pitches in the capital Lusaka to recreate Wednesday's playing conditions in Abidjan as closely as possible.
Lwandamina told journalists that even though his side had had the upper hand against ASEC at home, it will be a tough game in Abidjan. “They will want to make sure that they avenge a defeat, which they saw as humiliating. It will not be easy and we have to work really hard. It is an important match for us.”