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Sundowns have to ‘knuckle down’ for tough second leg in Cairo: Mokwena

Marc Strydom Digital Sports Editor
Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena during their African Football League semifinal first leg match against Al Ahly at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.
Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena during their African Football League semifinal first leg match against Al Ahly at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena has praised his side’s ability to take a lead against Al Ahly in their African Football League (AFL) semifinal while missing big-name strikers.

He admitted, however, a 1-0 scoreline means Downs will have to “knuckle down” in the second leg in Cairo.

Thapelo Maseko’s strike in Sunday’s first leg in Pretoria earned Downs a slim advantage. It remains to be seen if they can protect a single-goal lead in Wednesday’s second leg against the current and 11-time Caf Champions League winners at Cairo International Stadium (8pm, SA time). 

Sundowns were missing ace strikers Peter Shalulile and Lucas Ribeiro Costa at Loftus, meaning a number of midfielders had to press into more advanced roles.

Mokwena was asked if he believes the team can replicate such an attacking strategy in Egypt as they seek to finally transfer a major continental semifinal into a place in a final for the first time since winning the Champions League in 2016.

When asked if reaching a continental final gives him sleepless nights, Mokwena appeared to admit the past few weeks — in which his team bowed out of domestic cups in the MTN8 final and Carling Knockout Cup first round — kept the Downs’ famously workaholic coach up later than normal.

“I can tell you I already stay awake at night,” he said. “There’s a lot of stress and a lot of work, especially the last few weeks only sleeping at 5am because we’ve got so much to improve to help the players get better.

“I would like to be the optimist in that perspective and say I would rather have taken one [a single-goal lead] — of course, because 0-0 and 1-0 is a completely different perspective.

“So to take the one of the many chances we created for me is a positive — the bigger positive is we are creating the chances, even though we probably have none of our strikers or regular offensive players available.

“Our team still do what they do and create the chances they create [through] selflessness and putting the team first.

"‘Mishi’ [Themba Zwane] puts the team first by saying, ‘You need me as a false nine, closer [to goal]’; Thapelo Maseko and Gaston Sirino say, ‘I’ll play closer even though I’m a winger’.

“So there are a lot of positives we can take and I would rather stay on that side, even though I know we have got to knuckle down now and focus on what is going to be a very difficult second leg.”

Ahly’s Swiss coach Marcel Koller will look for an improvement in their normally precise possession play, as he complained the Red Devils gave the ball away too much in Pretoria.

“We had to be much calmer when we conceded and we spoke about the importance of keeping the ball, but unfortunately, we kept giving the ball away unnecessarily,” Koller said, via Kingfut.com.

“I believe we had a penalty towards the end but I don’t know why African officials don’t go to VAR reviews to check such incidents.

“Of course we still have a chance in the second leg in Cairo. I’m confident we will score, especially when we have our fans in the stadium.”

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