These are unfamiliar times for Sundowns. Most of the current crop have never had to endure the “difficult moment”, to use a football coach’s favourite euphemism.
No wins from three games in the league, two frustrating losses and 10 points off the top of the table. Difficult is certainly what we’re witnessing now. The Masandawana aura of impregnability is under threat.
This week assistant coach Manqoba Mngqithi was in no mood to mask the significance of the run.
“It was only one season — when we lost to Aces and Arrows — that we lost two games in a row,” he said. “But besides that we have always made it very difficult to lose — we would rather draw than lose. But this time, the losses to Chiefs and Arrows and a draw to Baroka are not good results by our standards at all.”
For context, Downs were defeated only three times in the league last season. Losing is simply not what this side does, let alone in quick succession.
Such is the fragile nature of the footballing ego that all it takes to shatter it is a few skew bounces to a reputation that has taken years to build. This is an outfit that’s feared on every ground in the country, but each disappointing outcome erodes that psychological edge a little.
To the bosses at Chloorkop, there can be only one solution: swerve and catch the tailwind. That chance arrives against Golden Arrows on Saturday in what has become an important Telkom Knockout semi-final.
“At Sundowns every game is important. Be it a friendly match, we would still want to go there and win it,” Mngqithi said, getting the required platitudes out the way. “But the fact that we have had three bad results makes this an even more important match for us. Because we are asking ourselves: When are we going to turn the corner?
“It’s very important for Sundowns to turn the corner quickly to give us confidence for the [CAF] Champions League, to give us confidence for the race in the league. So we are approaching this game with all the professionalism it deserves and what is expected of Sundowns.”
It’s ironic that in their moment of need, Masandawana must turn to a cup competition for a boost. He’ll never admit it, but coach Pitso Mosimane has continually turned his nose up at domestic knockout games in recent years, fielding weakened teams that have failed to get to a final since Bidvest Wits triumphed to win the MTN8 in 2016. Now he can’t afford another loss, no matter the level of occasion.
Victory against this particular opponent would also bring a level of symbolic closure. It was Arrows that rounded off the bad stretch with a messy but warranted win at a torrential Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium. The bad weather may have sucked the ball onto the pitch but it couldn’t mask Abafana Bes’thende’s superior desire to do something with it. Should Sundowns arrive with the same approach this time they can expect the same result.
“We know what to expect from them: their line-up and their strengths,” winger Lyle Lakay said after training on Wednesday. “Ja, we were disappointed with the loss in the league but hopefully we can turn it around with the cup game this weekend.
“We want to, as a team, get into the final. We compete for all the trophies that are on hand. People always say that we prioritise the league and the champions league, which is true, but at the end of the day we want to win everything that is on the table. We also haven’t won one in a while, so this is the perfect opportunity to win and get our momentum back.”
Lakay pulled the trigger half a second too late in that game, allowing a desperate tackle to block his shot and prevent what would have been a 90th-minute equaliser. On another day, even an off-form Sundowns would have found a way to scrape out a result. But that’s the thing about slumps, they drag you in deeper until someone finds the gumption to claw the team out.
Or, as Lakay put it: “It’s up to us to give a bit more to break the ice and eventually start winning — getting back to the Sundowns that people know.”