Sundowns brace for Esperance fans ranked in ‘top five on the continent’

Marc Strydom Digital Sports Editor
Mothobi Mvala a Mamelodi Sundowns training session at Esperenace de Tunis's home ground at Stade Olympique Hammadi Agrebi in Rades, Tunis on Friday night.
Mothobi Mvala a Mamelodi Sundowns training session at Esperenace de Tunis's home ground at Stade Olympique Hammadi Agrebi in Rades, Tunis on Friday night.
Image: Mehrez Toujani/BackpagePix

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena says he has an idea of the level of noise and intimidation his team will have to contend with from Esperance de Tunis' supporters by their reputation and the video analysis he has done of their home games.

Esperance almost seemed to be sending a warning to Downs when the club posted on social media on Thursday that tickets were sold out for Saturday night's Caf Champions League semifinal first leg in Tunis. The club accompanied the message with a video of their supporters in full chant as a taster.

Sundowns — after eight successive Champions League group stage appearances, four quarterfinals and two previous semifinals — have plenty of experience of North African crowds, among the most vociferous in world football with accompanying lasers and intimidation tactics.

Teboho Mokoena's presence in the prematch press conference made it clear Downs' most important midfielder has recovered from the niggling injury that saw him limp off in the first half of his team's 2-2 DStv Premiership draw against Moroka Swallows on Monday.

Mokwena said he expects the level of support at the 60,000-seat Stade Olympique Hammadi Agrebi, on a pitch he described as “one of the best we’ve seen in the Champions League so far”, will be as intense as Downs have come across.

“Not by experience,” Mokwena said, asked by Tunisia media if he had knowledge of Esperance's supporters.

“You watch their home games, their [the fans’] influence; you see in how they overcame Al Hilal [of Sudan, 1-0] in the group stage once they had lost away, their influence in the last round against Asec [Mimosas of Ivory Coast], pushing the team, encouraging and singing.

“I’m told they rank among the top five groups of supporters on the continent. We’ve experienced that against Al Ahly in Cairo, we’ve gone to Morocco and experienced something similar with Wydad and I presume we’ll get a similar level of support [for Esperance] and the noise on the pitch [here].”

Apart from having the intensity of the home support to contend with, Esperance are fresher than inaugural African Football League champions Downs, who are competing in six competitions in 2023-24 and have played 45 matches already. Esperance have played 28 games.

Question marks should be raised at the Premier Soccer League's scheduling, given Sundowns have midweek league games amid such a huge continental assignment.

The Brazilians played Swallows in Dobsonville on Monday before leaving for Tunisia on Tuesday. They return to South Africa on Sunday and meet Sekhkukhune United at Loftus Versfeld on Tuesday night, ahead of the semifinal second leg at the same venue on Friday night. 

Esperance, of course, have no midweek matches to distract them from the semifinal, and have played two matches this month to Sundowns' five.

“I have to give credit to the players because we’ve got a good group, they are a pleasure to work with and they understand the responsibility and magnitude of the task of representing Mamelodi Sundowns,” Mokwena said.

“That’s the most important thing. Without that, whatever you do, whatever techniques you apply as a coach, it becomes very difficult if the players are not receptive or understanding the goal and need for motivation.

“But of course I put a lot of pressure, I demand more and I do push and we have a clear expectation of certain levels we want every day.

“It’s not to train and to train, it’s to train to win the training session. Every day we want to win. We understand that human beings, and footballers, are creatures of habit and what you repeat you pick up. And so we strive every day for that level.”

Mokwena was able to rest a few of his top stars, including Themba Zwane, Thapelo Morena and Grant Kekana, against the Birds. 

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