South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns have taken a giant step towards representing Africa at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016 with a 3-0 victory against Cairo giants Zamalek in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final.
Having won all their matches at home this season in the Champions League and having beaten Zamalek twice in the group phase, Sundowns went into the game in Pretoria full of confidence. Coach Pitso Mosimane made just one change to the side that lost the MTN Cup final against Wits last weekend, bringing in Thabo Nthethe for Brazilian defender Ricardo Nascimento. His faith paid off as his players took the game to the visitors from the start.
Although Zamalek coach Moemen Soliman had to play a make-shift defence in the absence of several regulars, they made it easy for the home side. Striker Anthony Laffor broke the deadlock in the 31st minute after being sent through by Hlompho Kekana. The Liberian international managed to beat the offside trap, turned once and then ran towards goal, beating goalkeeper Ahmed El Shenawy with a powerful shot.
The goalkeeper was at fault as Sundowns extended their lead five minutes before the break when he allowed a Tebogo Langerman shot, that looked more like an intended cross, to float over him into the back of the net. El Shenawy stayed in the dressing room after the break, being substituted by Mahmoud Gennesh.
Gennesh hardly had time to get warm before he had to retrieve the ball from the back of the net as Sundowns made it three with practically their first attack after the break. Percy Tau, who looked dangerous throughout the game, beat Gennesh with a low ball across the area, forcing Eslam Gamal to push the ball into his own net in an attempt to prevent Laffor from getting to the ball.
Sundowns then seemed to hold back a bit more, but without allowing Zamalek an opportunity to threaten. Soliman admitted that it will be very difficult to turn things around at home. “If we win the trophy, it will almost be a miracle. I'm awaiting a response from my players. Sundowns will have a more difficult day in Alexandria. We are in a very difficult situation but we still have another game to make amends.”
He can draw some solace from the fact that it has been done before. In 1976 Hafia beat MC Alger 3-0 in the first leg and then lost the return by the same score, being beaten on penalties. A 4-0 win against Wydad in the semi-finals this year also showed that Zamalek can win big, but they now need to show that in the return leg if they want to win their sixth title.
Moment of the game
Although they dominated play from early on, Sundowns took their time to find the opening break-through they desperately wanted – and deserved. It came on the half-hour mark when Bafana Bafana midfielder Hlompho Kekana played a defence-splitting pass through the middle. The ball came to Anthony Laffor, who turned before running a few steps towards the Zamalek goal. As he entered the area, he unleashed a powerful shot that goalkeeper Ahmed El Shenawy could do nothing about. The goal gave the home side the confidence they needed and they added two more for a convincing 3-0 victory.
What they said
“We need to keep feet on the ground … Zamalek scored four against Wydad in Alexandria [in the semi-final]. If we don’t think they can score four against us then we’ll be fooling ourselves ... I would be doing an injustice if we don't congratulate and thank the whole of South Africa. I saw yellow jerseys, I saw Chiefs jerseys, I saw Bafana Bafana jerseys, it was unbelievable. I was so emotional - that was true patriotism ... It was brilliant, beautiful," Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane.
Player of the game
Anthony Laffor has been used mainly as a super-sub by Mosimane. A string of impressive performances by the Liberian international allowed him to stake a place in the starting line-up though and given the chance, he took it. He scored the opening goal for his side in the semi-final against Zesco United after just five minutes and again gave Sundowns the lead against Zamalek with the break-through goal on the half-hour.
7 – The number of victories that Sundowns have achieved at home in the competition this season. In winning seven out of seven, the 'Brazilians' scored 11 goals and conceded just two. The South African club have never lost at home in the Champions League.