Sundowns set to sweat when they challenge White Knights in Cairo
Mamelodi Sundowns go from the freeze of a highveld winter to temperatures brushing up to 40°C amid the smog and stifling heat of the Egyptian summer in overcrowded Cairo.
If that is not a shock to the senses, then the taxing intensity of their African Champions League assignment against one of the grandees of African football surely will.
Sunday’s Group B match against five-time winners Zamalek comes as Sundowns continue to try and juggle rest with preparation for the new season.
They have had no chance for a holiday, thrust immediately from championship-winning success in May into the group phase of the Champions League, which runs slap bang through the off season.
Not that it has been much of a hindrance so far. Victory over Entente Setif away in Algeria in their opening group game at the end of last month was arguably among the best results achieved by a South African club in African club competition, only for the point to be taken away when the North Africans were kicked out of the competition.
Although some at Sundowns were grumbling about losing that result from their record, ensuring a top two finish is a lot easier when there are only three teams in the group. It should be even easier now that Nigeria’s Enyimba have lost twice – to both Zamalek and Sundowns.
Sundowns beat the Nigerians 2-1 at home in their last game, albeit in a performance that was far from fluid. They lapsed dramatically after a bright start but it was understandable given that coach Pitso Mosimane is trying to give some time off in between the Champions League matches to avoid burning out his charges further down the line.
Sundowns will likely show the same inability to keep up a high intensity throughout the entire 90 minutes on Sunday night at the Petrojet Stadium in Cairo. They will be up against a home side at the end of their domestic season (Zamalek completed their Egyptian league programme last Saturday and now complete the cup matches over the next weeks) and are in top condition, even if they have had something of a tumultuous season with four different coaches inside a year.
One favourable factor for Sundowns is that there is no longer rabid support from the stands. Egyptian authorities continue to restrict crowd attendance at football games, which is one of the few staging grounds for potential protests against the military suppression of democracy in the country.
Usually a game of this nature would have an attendance of at least 60 000 at the intimidating Cairo International Stadium but it is now moved to a smaller venue with a restricted crowd.
Still, Zamalek are an experienced team who rarely trip up at home. In recent years Orlando Pirates might have beaten Egypt’s other giants, Al Ahly, away but not the “White Knights”. Zamalek have won four of six matches in the past against South African opposition, losing twice in Johannesburg to Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates 20 years apart.
As Al Ahly have surprisingly lost their opening two matches in Group A of the Champions League campaign, this is Zamalek’s chance to come out from under the shadow of their archenemy. It is going to be a tough evening for Sundowns but after their exploits in Algeria there will also be the confidence on the part of the South Africans to be able to achieve a result in a unusually unforgiving environment.
An away win would also ensure Sundowns progress to the semifinals in September but a draw is the more likely outcome.