Mamelodi Sundowns confirmed their passage into the group stages of the 2017 Caf Champions League on Saturday.
While Sundowns progressed, their win Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) did not come easy as the defending champions faced the prospect of elimination, until Anthony Laffor rescued the situation with a late equaliser - the goal saw the Brazilians advance on away-goal rule.
In the lead up to the encounter, much was said about the experience Sundowns gained during their triumphant campaign. Although, Sundowns fell behind to an early Geoffrey Sserunkuma strike, they were mature in their approach and showed grit and great resilience as they eventually overcame their Ugandan opponents.
Sundowns have proven themselves to be the new giants of African football and this has made their campaign more difficult. Unlike in previous years, Sundowns are now a marked team. Gone are the days of being the underdogs; every team that plays Sundowns is regarded as an underdog. This is only a mere reflection of what the club has achieved on the continent.
Considering that giants TP Mazembe had fallen prey to expectations in 2016 and Al Ahly in 2014, being a reigning champion has not always been the best of omens. So, Sundowns grinding out a place in the next round is surely nothing to feel ashamed about.
It should also be noted that the Brazilians have had to contend with a congested fixture schedule, having been involved in a Premier Soccer League (PSL) encounter in midweek, which made their draw on Saturday even more noteworthy.
A considerable difference to Sundowns' triumphant squad is their depth.
In this year’s edition, the Tshwane giants have bolstered their squad and filled it with an abundance of quality.
Sundowns relied heavily on the now departed Keagan Dolly and the injured Khama Billiat last year, but this year’s edition has forced their technical team to search for alternatives.
Billiat’s injury layoff has seen the spotlight fall on Percy Tau and although he has been on the receiving end of coach Mosimane's tough remarks for showing his youthfulness at times, he has has shouldered the team.
On the other hand, Dolly’s move to French Ligue 1 has undoubtedly left a huge gap as Mosimane correctly highlighted in his previous interviews, but the likes of Themba Zwane and Laffor have breathed new life into the current team.
Sundowns were undoubtedly tested in both legs, but they reigned supreme and held their own in both matches.
Nonetheless, their wastefulness in front of goal has become visibly apparent, having failed to score in three successive matches in their domestic campaign. Coach Mosimane would have been a worried man after falling behind, but he also knows that he has enough depth even on the bench to win at any given day.
If Sundowns are to progress further in the competition, they will know better than anyone that they need to be more lethal in front of goal. This year’s group stages will be the most competitive yet, due to the revised format and the defending PSL champions will surely have their work cut out.
Along with Sundowns' accomplishment on the weekend, this year’s Champions League must be seen as a success for the Cosafa region. Zanaco (Zambia), Ferroviario Beira (Mozambique) and CAPS United (Zimbabwe) who most notably defeated Mazembe to earn their passage into next round, have all advanced to the next phase of Africa's biggest club competition.
The four Cosafa clubs will be joined by Coton Sport (Cameroon), USM Alger (Algeria), Al Ahly and Zamalek (both Egypt), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Al-Hilal and Al-Merrikh (both Sudan), Esperance de Tunis and Etoile du Sahel (both Tunisia), AS Vita Club (DR Congo), Saint George (Ethiopia) and Al Ahli Tripoli (Libya) – who make up the sixteen teams that will compete in this year’s group stages.