By Robson Sharuko
Harare - Two years after they met in the CAF Champions League semi-final, Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa and ZESCO United of Zambia both crashed out of the group stages of this year’s tournament on a Tuesday, with both sides failing to get the home comforts they had been hoping for.
This means that only Angolan club, Clube Primeiro de Agosto, who edged Mbabane Swallows of Swaziland 2-1 in Luanda on Tuesday are the only Southern African side still standing in the CAF Champions League this year and will take their place in the quarter-finals.
Mbabane Swallows, who many feel punched above their weight to get into the group stages of the tournament, finished bottom of Group D with four points from their six matches while Sundowns were only two points better than the Swazi side.
Wydad Casablanca, who are the defending champions, dominated the group with 12 out of a possible 18 points while Guinea side Horoya AC, who are reviving their romance with African club football after having won the 1978 Africa Cup Winners Cup, were second with nine points.
Sundowns, who are one of the wealthiest clubs in Africa, needed to beat the Guinea side in their final group game in Pretoria on Tuesday to squeeze into the quarter-finals of the tournament.
However, the Brazilians failed to find the spark they needed in front of goal to get the priceless goal that would have sent them through as a stubborn and disciplined Horoya AC stuck to their formula and, at the end of the contest, were full value for their priceless point.
The South African champions, who won the tournament two years ago, hit the crossbar in the second half but, without Khama Billiat and Percy Tau, who have left their stable for greener pastures elsewhere, they didn’t have the X-Factor that helped them conquer the continent in 2016.
However, on Twitter, the Sundowns fans appeared to agree that their team has looked lightweight, especially in attack, without Billiat and Tau. The Zimbabwean international ran out his contract at Sundowns at the end of last season and moved to Johannesburg to join Kaizer Chiefs while Tau broke into European football where he signed a long-term contract with English Premiership side Brighton and Hove Albion before being loaned out to a Belgian second-tier club to gain experience.
“We are nothing without Billiat. You know Masandawana we haven't scored a goal in about four matches,” said club fan SP Muchanga on Twitter.
“Anyway, we will see. And, before anyone insults me, (the) fact is: Sundowns 0 vs Wydad 1; Sundowns 0 vs (Highlands) Park 0; Sundowns 0 vs (Cape Town City) 1; Sundowns 0 vs Horoya 0.
“Billiat, hate him, but his effect is no more! It's really hard to admit we lost a player but it’s soccer.”
In the absence of Billiat and Percy, Sundowns have gambled on Sifiso Vilakazi and Jeremy Brockie for goals but the duo has found the going tough with the latter still to find a goal since arriving at the club.
The fans are getting a bit of impatient.
“With Brockie and Vilakazi, we won't win anything this season,” said Sanele Ngcobo on Twitter while another fan, P.F. Dawana said, “as a fan, I'm disappointed by the results, I just hope they will give coach Pitso (Mosimane) ideas of how to approach our upcoming games.
“I feel like it's an insult to keep on playing a striker who hasn't scored a goal for his new team after so many chances he got.
“I don't remember the last time Sundowns spent 4 competitive games without scoring a goal, even during our worst campaign in 2012 /2013 season we only went 3 consecutive games without a goal.”
Nahayo Mash, another fan, is also a worried supporter.
“You can't play with Brockie as a lone striker and expect him to score goals without getting a supply from the middle,” he thundered on twitter.
“You can't always pass the balls behind the defense and expect Jeremy Brockie to chase all the balls, that's highly impossible.” Other fans, though, chose to see the other side and celebrate the achievements of a team that has, in the past two years, left a firm footprint on the game on the continent.
“My fellow Sandawana fans, let's learn to accept the negative results (because) they are part of football,” said Sanele Ngcobo. “We can't win everything, every day, therefore this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.”
Mosimane has established himself as one of the best coaches on the continent in the last two years in which he guided Sundowns to their best run on the continent and it’s unlikely his profile will be severely dented by his team’s failure this time around.
A return of just one win in six group matches this year was poor, by Sundowns’ standards, and the coach will have to go back to the drawing board, especially after declaring last year that he now fancied winning the Champions League than the domestic championship.
“Rather than winning the league and Nedbank Cup (the South African FA Cup), I would rather win the CAF Champions League and CAF Super Cup,” he told the official CAF website.
“Domestically we might not win anything but we can go to the FIFA Club World Cup in December, which for me is history for Sundowns.
“It is going to be very tough. In fact, it will be even tougher considering the fact that most clubs know who Sundowns is. We have the experience now and know what is needed to get positive results out of such matches. We have the quality and depth.”
ZESCO United needed a win against Etoile du Sahel on Tuesday, and a favourable result from Luanda, for them to qualify for the quarter-finals but they settled for a 1-1 draw and Clube Primero de Agosto’s nervy 2-1 win over Mbabane Swallows, sealed their fate.
Wydad Casablanca, Horoya, Congolese giants TP Mazembe, Algerian side ES Setif, record African Champions League winners Al Ahly of Egypt, Tunisian powerhouse Esperance, their counterparts Etoile du Sahe and Clube Primero de Agosto will battle in the quarter-finals.