|SPECIAL ONE: Mosimane with one eye on Mourinho|
"IS THIS STILL THE BACK DOOR?" Pitso Mosimane, Mamelodi Sundowns.
Before a ball has been kicked, the 2016 African Champions League final has to go down as one of the most bizarre in the competition’s history.
Oryx Douala of Cameroon won the very first continental club championship back in 1965 and South African clubs have always struggled to make their mark - Orlando Pirates famously won it in 1995, reaching the final again just three years ago. The Buccaneers apart, Mamelodi Sundowns are the only other PSL side to get that far, losing in the 2001 final to Egypt’s Al Ahly.
The pesky Cairo-based rivals have dominated the competition. The “Red Devils” of Al Ahly holding the record of eight wins (1982, 1987, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2013) and the “White Knights’ of Zamalek have done it five times (1984, 1986, 1993, 1996 and 2002).
Saturday night saw Zamalek, apparently coasting to the final after a 4-0 home win, lose 5-2 to Wydad Casablanca, who had sacked veteran Welsh coach John Toshack after the first leg.
Incredibly Wydad were 5-1 up with 26 minutes left, needing just one more goal to go through when Zamalek’s Nigerian Stanley Ohawuchi sealed the deal for the White Knights.
But what about Sundowns? They were 2-1 down after the first leg in Ndola against Zesco United, attempting to become Zambia’s second finalists after Nkana Red Devils, who lost on penalties way back in 1990.
Needing a 1-0 win to survive on away goals, Liberian Anthony Laffor got that vital strike before locally-produced Percy Tau sealed the deal - though an away goal for Zesco, who hit the woodwork, would have forced a draw even at 2-0.
Having been knocked out of the Champions League before the group stages by AS Vita and then the CAF Confederations Cup by Medeama, Sundowns - reinstated when it was found Vita had fielded an ineligible player - journey to the final is unique in world football.
But their form since then gives real reason for optimism for South Africans hoping for a first continental triumph in 21 years. After an opening 2-1 win at Algeria’s ES Setif - who were disqualified for crowd violence after the match - Pitso Mosiman’s men beat Zamalek home and away to qualify for the semi-finals with plenty to spare in Group B.
Mosimane, the former Bafana Bafana national coach, was headed off to watch Copa America when Sundowns were given their lifeline back in to the competition. Many of his players were on holiday and had to be recalled for the opening Group B game in Algeria.
After a rare three game winless streak, Sundowns came back to reach both the domestic MTN8 and CAF finals in the space of four days. Pitso explained: “It’s very difficult for a team to beat Sundowns home and away, over 180 minutes you need to be very good.
“But the boys did very well. Feet on the ground, one step at a time. Sugar Mabunda unbelievable. Percy Tau scored, I’m happy. I’ve been needing this goal. Percy scores in Champions League, and he scores with his head in Champions League.
“As long as they our fans support us, as long as they sing their lungs out, the boys respond. We kept consistent at home. Two goals and a clean sheet.
“Zesco is a very good team and playing in Ndola and Atteridgeville are totally different stories. I think the boys deserve credit, they’ve done very well”
“We’ve been playing football for 15 months, non-stop, it’s not possible, and that’s why we are not fresh as usual.
Mosimane had words for Manchester United fans, who also recovered from a three-game slump this week: “Jose Mourinho issued a statement because he lost three games. If he was in South Africa, do you know what would have happened? They would have asked him for a meeting, for a technical report, he must explain why the team is not winning.
“But this is the licence that we get from Manchester United to say ‘don’t write us off’ and let’s keep going. So, against all odds, a luta continua, vitoria certa, we don’t need anybody’s favour.”
“We came from nowhere and on holiday to the cup final, we deserve it. I know they said we went through the back door, but I don’t know how we qualified for the final … is this still the back door?”