There are so many sideshows to the CAF Champions League Group A clash between Al Ahly and Mamelodi Sundowns at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo on Saturday that it is difficult to know where to look.
First and foremost it is a chance for three vital points in the pool, where both sides have made a mediocre start.
Sundowns rode their luck a little in seeing off Al Hilal at home in their first match and were then wasteful in their 0-0 draw with another Sudanese side, Al Merreikh, at the very same Al Salam Stadium this past weekend.
The match was played on neutral territory as Al Merreikh’s home venue in Omdurman was banned by the Confederation of African Football.
But Ahly did travel to Sudan for their pool opener against Al Hilal, which ended in a tepid 0-0 draw. The Egyptians are behind in terms of matches in the group because they skipped the first round while competing at the 2022 Fifa Club World Cup, where they picked up the bronze medal.
Both clubs will be a little underwhelmed by their start, but know this is a massive opportunity for three huge points in the pool. A win for Ahly would cement their status as top dogs in the group, but victory for Sundowns would send a massive statement to the rest of the field.
There is also the potential for Ahly forward Percy Tau to go up against his former employers for what would surely be an emotional outing for him.
He still has deep friendships in the Sundowns camp and at the pomp of his time with the club it seemed inconceivable he would wear another team’s colours against them.
Tau has been missing since mid-January with injury, but Ahly have said he is “95 per cent ready” to play on the weekend, though that could also be mind-games as they know what psychological effect it will have on the Sundowns players to see the Bafana Bafana star among the opposition.
“Percy Tau is 95 per cent per cent ready for the Sundowns game,” Al Ahly director of football Sayed Abdelhafiz told the club’s TV channel. “We have important games against Sundowns and Al-Merreikh in the Champions League, we need our players to be ready by then.
“We have the motive to go for the third consecutive CAF Champions League title, no one has ever done it before.
MORE FAMILIAR FACES
It is, of course, a meeting between two sides who know each other extremely well in more ways than one.
Forget the fact that they are meeting in the Champions League for the fourth season in a row – the three previous years have involved clashes in the quarterfinals – meaning the players and various analysts will know their opponents like the back of their hand.
There is also the battle in the dug-out, with Ahly’s Pitso Mosimane up against his former assistants in Sundowns’ co-coaches Manqoba Mngqithi and Rhulani Mokwena. Throw into the mix Mosimane’s great friend Steve Komphela too – he is also on The Brazilians’ technical team as senior coach.
And then there is the backroom staff, many of whom have worked for both clubs, and so there will be little in the way of surprises on the day.
Mosimane might have left Sundowns under something of a cloud so soon after signing a new contract, but it is clear Mngqithi holds him in high regard.
“If we are being honest, he’s been cheated by Fifa by not getting the Coach of the Year award – if you consider the amount of continental trophies he won in one year. But maybe because he’s an African, he doesn’t deserve the credit that he deserves,” Mngqithi said recently of his former boss.
“It’s very difficult for one two win two Super Cups and one Champions League in one year and still not be selected as the Coach of the Season.”
Mosimane feels he has been treated badly by some at Sundowns since his departure, while a section of the club’s supporters have also targeted him for abuse. That will add some extra spice to the contest.
Sundowns have faced off against Ahly five times in the past and while their home record against the Red Devils is good, they have yet to get a win – or even score a goal – against their great rivals in Egypt.
It is a sobering record for the Tshwane club and one they will be desperate to change on Saturday, because in truth their performances away at Ahly in recent times have been quite good and they have perhaps not got the rewards they deserve.
Their first away clash was in the final of the 2001 Champions League where they lost 3-0 but were arguably the better side on the day. That sounds counter intuitive, but Ahly took their chances and Sundowns did not.
They returned in the third round of the competition in 2007 but lost 2-0 away from home to bow out.
The teams clashed again in the 2018-19 quarterfinals as Sundowns recorded a thumping 5-0 home success to sew up the tie, but lost 1-0 away. It was these games more than any that made Ahly go after Mosimane the following year.
They had a quarterfinal clash again in 2019-20 and Sundowns lost 2-0 in Cairo, before the sides faced off once more in 2020-21 with Mosimane this time in the Ahly dug-out.
Sundowns were the better team in the away clash, but poor goalkeeping from Denis Onyango, especially for the second goal, saw them lose 2-0 again.
So the record is a poor one in Cairo – played five, lost five, no goals scored and 10 conceded.
The flip side of that statistic is that Ahly have never won in South Africa, against any opponent. That includes defeats to the likes of Platinum Stars and SuperSport United.
Sundowns have had one success in Cairo though, they defeated Ahly’s great rivals Zamalek 2-1 in the group stages of the 2016 Champions League, when they went on to lift the trophy.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Al Ahly – Aliou Dieng
The Mali midfielder is a stand-out performer for Ahly with his physical prowess in midfield, but also his technical quality and rocket shot that make him a true box-to-box star.
He has been a key part of their recent success and has been courting admirers all over Europe, meaning this will likely be his last season with the Red Devils.
“He can play as a six and an eight and he fits in all the systems and all the modules. He’s fit, he’s strong, he’s young, he can press, he runs 90 minutes, he’s got all the attributes that are needed,” Mosimane said.
Mamelodi Sundowns – Brian Onyango
Everyone knows of the attacking threat of Sundowns, but when facing a side like Al Ahly, they will have to be rock solid at the back and be ready for a physical battle.
That should be the perfect stage for the Kenyan Onyango, who is excellent in the air and has the muscle to ease opponents off the ball. If they go with a back three again, he will be at the heart of it and therefore a crucial player in organising the defence.
How Sundowns defend, more than how they attack, may be the key to winning this contest.
WHO IS OUT?
Al Ahly – With Percy Tau likely to return, according to his club, it means the major absentee for Ahly is centre-back Ayman Ashraf. Defender Mohamed Abdelmonem and Tunisia international left-back Ali Maaloul are set to also be back from injury.
Mamelodi Sundowns – The South American pair of Gaston Sirino and Erwin Saavedra will be missing through injury, while Mosa Lebusa and Gift Motupa are also sidelined ©Backpage TXT