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Feature: Sundowns’ previous Champions League final
In addition to being the only African country to host the World Cup, South Africa boasts the best resources, especially in infrastructure, compared to the rest of the continent. However, this has not been reflected in the performance of South African clubs or the national team. Many would argue that the country’s teams have been underperforming on the continental stage. South Africa’s clubs have managed only one CAF Champions League title between them, when Orlando Pirates beat ASEC Abidjan to the title in 1995. The Buccaneers reached one more final in their history when they fell to Al Ahly in 2013. The only other side to make an appearance at the final is Mamelodi Sundowns who, apart from their anticipated clash against Zamalek SC in a few days, came close once before. The Brazilians, as they are called in reference to their uniform, seem to have their fate tied with Egyptian sides as they met the other Cairo giant, Al Ahly SC, in the 2001 final.
‘Tough’ group stage
In the 2001 CAF Champions League group stage, Sundowns were drawn into the tough Group A with Esperance, TP Mazembe, and Julius Berger of Nigeria (Currently named Bridge FC). The Bafana Ba Style notably managed goalless draws away in Tunisia and DR Congo, but lost 2-0 in Nigeria. At home, Sundowns narrowly beat Mazembe 1-0 and managed another goalless draw with Esperance. They then went into their final group game sitting in third place and behind the only side to have beaten them in the tournament thus far – Julius Berger.
Pressure was on in Pretoria where only a victory was enough to send Sundowns to the semi-finals in front of their fans, while Berger was looking to be the first Nigerian side to win the competition. A 36th minute goal from man of the match Bennett Mnguni sealed the second victory for the South African side. In the end, the difference between group winners Esperance and bottom side TP Mazembe was only two points. Sundowns finished second behind Esperance only on goal difference. With these results, Mamelodi managed to qualify to the semi-final having scored only two goals in the group stage, but boasted the best defensive record out of the eight quarter finalists.
On the other side, Al Ahly also finished second on goal difference behind Petro Atletico of Angola. The Red Devils won four of their six games and lost twice: at home to Petro Atletico and away to ASEC. The continent was thus set for two mouthwatering derby semi-finals; a north derby between rivals Al Ahly and Esperance and a south derby between two semi-final debutants Mamelodi Sundowns and Petro Atletico.
In stark contrast to their South African counterparts, Petro Atletico went into the semi-final as the second strongest attack in the group stage with ten goals. In addition, they had just pulled a major upset a few weeks earlier beating Al Ahly in Cairo 2-4. However, this was not to shake the Bafana Ba Style who were the clearly dominant side at home in the first leg.
Striker Carlo Scott turned his marker and finished from close range to give Sundowns a deserved half time lead despite their many squandered chances. Petro Atletico’s only clear chance in the game fell to tournament top scorer 20 year old Flavio Amadu who failed to hit the target when a cross found him unmarked. With the Angolans looking content to take a narrow deficit into the second leg, Daniel Mudau headed home in the last minute of the game to finally double the South African’s lead. Mudau’s last gasp header was to prove crucial two weeks later when Sundowns found themselves down to Kapela Mbiavanga’s brace in Luanda, but their defense held on to set up a penalty shoot-out. The Brazilians held their nerve to win 5-4 and end the premature celebrations of the home fans.
In equally thrilling fashion, the second semi-final proved to be of fine margins as well. After a goalless draw in Cairo, Al Ahly also sealed qualification on foreign ground after a late equaliser from Sayed Abdel-Hafiz gave them a 1-1 draw, in Tunis.
Sundowns played the first leg of the final at home, where they managed to win all their games, apart from the draw against Esperance. On the other side, Al Ahly notably struggled on the road, even in the tournament’s early stages, but were just back off their famous morale-boosting friendly win over Real Madrid.
A thrilling first half began with Sundowns on the front foot. Carlo Scott went agonisingly close after beating the on-rushing goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary to poke the ball onto the post in the 16th minute. Ten minutes later, midfielder Gift Kampamba scored a superb opener after a great run from midfield before his long-range strike went in off the inside of the far post. From then on, Al Ahly seemed to grasp more control of the game, and after the break, Sayed Abdel-Hafiz beat his marker to head home and equalize for the Red Devils for the second game in a row.
In the last ten minutes, substitute Lucky Qaba could have given Mamelodi the lead on two occasions. First, he struck the post with a scorcher from 25 meters, before failing to hit the target with a loose ball from five meters, while completely unmarked. The final score was 1-1 as Al Ahly celebrated a precious away draw.
The second leg saw the return of Al Ahly striker Khaled Bebo from suspension, who proved to be a decisive factor for the home side. Sundowns had very little to show for themselves and were made to rue the first leg opportunities as Bebo’s hattrick sealed a one-sided victory, 3-0 for the Egyptians. In the 36th minute, Bebo converted the penalty he had won to give Al Ahly the lead. He added his second on the stroke of half time after latching on Mohamed Farouk’s pull back. Bebo completed his hattrick in the 90th minute after beating his marker with skill and pace to finish past the advancing goalkeeper.
Sundowns will now contest their second Champions League final 15 years later. While Zamalek will be looking to win their sixth title, the Bafana Ba Style will strongly believe in their chances in winning the competition having already beaten the White Knights twice in this edition’s group stage.
Video: Sundowns vs Al Ahly goals from both legs of CAF Champions League final 2001