This was a devastating loss, Ahly’s worst in Caf competitions, and one that must lead to a major inquest at Africa’s biggest club.
The Cairene giants are comfortably the continent’s most successful side, having won a record eight Champions League titles.
They were among the favourites for this year’s title too—and their 13th final appearance after having been defeated by Esperance last year—but now their hopes are in tatters after they were thoroughly outclassed by Downs.
Before the match, Pitso Mosimane spoke of the difference in scale between Ahly and the Brazilians.
“They are the biggest team on the continent,” he told journalists. “Just look at the badge, just look at the stars, then you realise that we have small boys.”
Mind games, perhaps, but ultimately, Mosimane’s side are the ones on the brink of the final four; it would take a near-miraculous turnaround for Ahly to progress.
At the time of writing, Uruguayan coach Martin Lasarte remains in his post, although despite an apology to fans, his days may well be numbered.
Last term, Patrice Carteron was appointed midway through the year to salvage a Caf CL campaign that was on the verge of imploding.
This year, Lasarte has failed to paper over the cracks, and this humiliating loss is the consequence.
Even Ahly and Egypt legend Wael Gomaa has predicted that the coach will be gone before the second leg.
In truth, the North Africans didn’t start too badly, and defended well for the opening stages at the Lucas Moripe Stadium, before their energy, already sapped by a packed fixture calendar in recent months, began to ebb in the conditions.
.@Masandawana Stats v Ahly— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) April 7, 2019
Successful Passes: Zwane (78)
Unsuccessful Passes: Kekana (10)
Crosses: Langerman (5)
Chances Created: Sirino (4)
Assists: Langerman (2)
Tackles Won: Kekana (4)
Interceptions: Anele Ngcongca (2)
Dribbles: Sirino (3)
Fouls: Maboe (4)
Touches: Zwane (103) pic.twitter.com/3fnWfYq6Nj
Downs soon turned the screw, and after Themba Zwane had opened the scoring in the 14th minute, Ahly offered little resistance.
Wayne Arendse added a second 10 minutes later, and it would have been worst had the woodwork not denied the hosts.
Lasarte made his second substitution with 10 minutes of the first half to go, introducing Nasser Maher for Mohamed Hany, but the visitors were fortunate to go into the break only 2-0 down.
On this occasion, complacency in front of goal won’t come back to haunt Downs, and Ricardo Nascimento extended their advantage soon after the break.
Defensively, they’d been open—generously—in the first half, after falling 3-0 down, they fell apart.
This is where the real warning signs began for the continent’s giants, as they team began to lose their discipline, and neglected the simplest tasks; pressing, tracking back, following the man.
Gone was the swagger and the authority that has so typified Ahly teams, even in recent years, this lot wore their defeat in their body language, their attitude, and the increasing absence of composure.
Lasarte must take much of the blame, with his team lacking any semblance of structure, organisation or tactical nous as the goals rolled in.
Why, for example, did Ahly persist with a high defensive line considering the conditions and the problems Downs’ pacy forwards were causing for their leggy defenders?
Perhaps Ahly could quibble a refereeing decision or two, but Downs deserve immense credit for creating the conditions for such an emphatic win, and—eventually—for taking their chances after that frenetic first 45.
.@AlAhlyEnglish Stats v Mamelodi Sundowns— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) April 8, 2019
Successful Passes: El Soleya (31)
Unsuccessful Passes: El Shenawy (14)
Crosses: Sobhi, Fathy, Hany (3)
Tackles Won: Fathy, Ashraf (2)
Interceptions: Fathy (3)
Dribbles: Sobhi (4)
Fouls: Sobhi (4)
Touches: Maaloul (54) pic.twitter.com/POcFyR4Jxe
They must now return to the drawing board, likely with a new coach at the helm.
The recent signing of Ramadan Sobhi, from Huddersfield Town, was one of several moves intended to give the heavyweights even more clout in the continent, as was a move to bring in Geraldo from Primeiro de Agosto.
There was similar logic behind the arrival of Hussein El Shahat.
Yet the defence and the heart of the midfield wasn’t addressed as it ought to have been, particularly after the warning signs were there following their 3-0 second-leg Caf CL final capitulation at the hands of Esperance late last year.
Ahly still don’t boast the kind of controlling midfielders—men like Fousseny Coulibaly or Franck Kom—who can give them the grit and presence in front of the backline to ease the pressure on their defenders in testing bouts like these.
On this occasion, Tiyani Mabunda and Hlompho Kekana comfortably won the midfield battle, underpinning a superb Downs showing.
Were the arrivals of Mahmoud Wahid or Mohamed Mahmoud, for example, really going to solve the kind of problems that undermined Ahly last season?
The right side remains an area of concern, as evidenced by the rampant display of Tebogo Langerman, who helped himself to two assists, and the influence of Zwane, who completed a game-high 78 passes.
Zwane also completed a game-high 103 touches, as Ahly struggled to close him down effectively.
The defence continues to lack authority without the departed Salif Coulibaly, who was allowed to leave for Al Shorta SC in January, while questions must be asked of Ali Maaloul.
Imperious going forward in recent years, he struggled at the World Cup, and was again exposed here.
The Tunisia international lost the ball 18 times against Downs, and was beaten by his opposite man four times—both game highs.
Downs, who enjoyed 64.1 percent of the possession, were allowed 19 shots during the match—12 of which were on target—and forced their opponents to commit 20 fouls
They also tackled more efficiently than Ahly—winning 21 to 15—and completed 592 passes to the Egyptians’ 321.
“We are embarrassed and apologize to you,” Lasarte said after the match. “There is nothing else to be said.
“We will talk less and work more from now on,”
However, even the Club of the Century can’t come back from this one.