Sundowns stumble against solid Stars
LOBI STARS (1)2
Kone 45pen, Mathias 57 MAMELODI SUNDOWNS (1)1 Laffor 37
MAMELODI Sundowns started their CAF Champions League campaign in the worst possible way, losing to the lowest-ranked team in their group – Nigeria’s Lobi Stars. Stars beat the 2016 winners in only their second appearance in the group stage, which is the furthest they have been in this competition.
The Ortom Boys’ coach Solomon Ogbeide was bullish about his team’s chances before the match. He did however admit that they were the underdogs against the former African champions. But Ogbeide argued that Nigeria’s national team has been dominant against their South African counterparts, losing only one competitive match in a long-held rivalry that stretches beyond the football pitch and crosses into politics too. He was confident Stars would continue that Nigerian dominance over the South African champions, and his team did just that, recording a famous win.
While Ogbeide spoke with confidence, his Sundowns’ counterpart Pitso Mosimane was unusually cautious as he hadn’t seen much of the Nigerians. But he did know that they pose a big threat from their physical presence. The Brazilians countered Stars’ physical and aerial strength by starting with three centrebacks – Mosa Lebusa, Rivaldo Coetzee and Ricardo Nascimento – and allowed the fullbacks who are former wingers to attack with freedom.
That speed gave Sundowns the lead. A swift counter from a long ball played to Gaston Sirino pierced opened the burly but slow Nigerian side. The Uruguayan wizard then put the ball on the platter for Anthony Laffor to give the visitors the lead. The Liberian, who thrives in big matches, made no mistake.
But that lead was short-lived with Stars responding swiftly. Yaya Kone equalised just before halftime from the penalty spot, after Nascimento had brought down Sunday Adetunji inside his box. Sundowns kept their composure just as they had throughout this match, not panicking but playing the ball calmly from the back even though they were playing on an artificial pitch.
The Nigerians were no slouches. They also kept the ball well and didn’t cower at the sight of their more successful opponents, and started the second half the more dominant of the two.
Samuel Mathias put them in front after a scramble in the box, and then Sundowns pressed the Nigerians high up in search of an equaliser and a crucial point away but the Nigerians stood resolute.
The Brazilians now have a mammoth task on their hands.
They have to beat Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca in their next match next week. The Moroccans are a thorn in the flesh of Sundowns, having beateb them in the quarterfinals in 2017 and then going all the way to lift the Champions League. Last year Sundowns only collected one point, at home, against Wydad as they lost the away leg in Casablanca in the group stage.
What won’t help Sundowns is that they have a tricky match against struggling Maritzburg United on Wednesday before hosting the Moroccans. This will not only test Sundowns’ mental strength but also their resolve as they need to pick themselves quickly if they are to do better than last season, where they crashed out in the group stage of the Champions League in a relatively easy group.