Mamelodi Sundowns gave their all yesterday, but their efforts fell short, ending their dream of qualifying for a second successive CAF Champions League semifinal.
Bowing out at the quarterfinal stage against the Egyptian side Al Ahly was a bitter pill to swallow. The Tshwane powerhouse knocked out 5-1 on aggregate in last season’s Last 8 meeting.
The Brazilians had a plan to score an early goal, but having to overhaul a two-goal deficit was always going to be a nearly impossible task with a Last 4 ticket at stake.
The moment Al Ahly took the lead 21 minutes into the game, the packed stadium went silent.
The Egyptians’ plan was to manage the game, and the hosts did not anticipate trailing so early in a match they were so much in control of in the opening stages.
Despite limited attempts at goal, the visitors took advantage of a free kick that came after a foul committed by Mosa Lebusa.
The resultant kick by Ali Maâloul – Ahly’s two-goal hero in their 2-0 win in Cairo last weekend – broke the hearts of the Yellow Nation, who had packed the stadium in Atteridgeville.
But the setback did not deflate their troops on the pitch as they searched for the much-needed goals after Maâloul’s free kick, which deflected off Lebohang Maboe to beat Denis Onyango at the near post. Sundowns were soon back in it thanks to a Gastón Sirino equaliser five minutes later.
Sirino was a threat whenever he was in possession, with the tiny Uruguayan always protecting the ball from his physically superior markers.
Al Ahly defended as a bloc, with as many as seven players behind the ball whenever Sundowns were in possession.
However, the home side found their way around, often resorting to the long balls to locate talismen Sirino and Sibusiso Vilakazi in the attack, and the tactic paid dividends.
It was during this routine that Themba Zwane latched on to a long ball to force a good save from goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy, but Sirino was on hand to tap home the rebound.
Zwane had initially tested El Shenawy with a long-range attempt almost immediately after kick-off, followed by another effort from defender Ricardo Nascimento, which the keeper dealt with.
The Egypt number one also had his irritating moments, often orchestrating his team’s time-delaying tactics, a move that drew the ire of the home fans.
Top-rated Gambian referee Papa Gassama also had his hands full trying to restore order after altercations between the two teams – some incidents were real, while others bordered on mischief.
Even coach Pitso Mosimane registered his dissatisfaction when only three minutes were added at the end.
But Mosimane and his players took their 3-1 aggregate loss on the chin as they joined their legion of followers in their traditional post-match banter as if they had not just been eliminated from the premier continental club competition.
The draw maintained Sundowns’ 19-match unbeaten Champions League streak at home, which stretches back for three years, when they lost to Tunisian giants Espérance here in June 2017.
However, all is not lost for the Brazilians as they will now shift their attention to their domestic Premiership programme.
Before their bid to close the gap held by log leaders Kaizer Chiefs, Sundowns will travel to Tembisa for a date with Highlands Park in the Nedbank Cup quarterfinals at Makhulong Stadium on Saturday.
They are still chasing their dream of a treble, with the Nedbank Cup and the league title still within their reach.
They have already bagged the Telkom Knockout trophy.