Conflict. That’s how I’ve felt all week leading up to this afternoon’s big Café Champions League game between Al Ahly and Mamelodi Sundowns.
The match is so big that it is referred to as the ‘African derby’ in football circles. This is the game the whole continent is looking forward to.
I’m usually not moved by games with billing like this, as more often than not they live up to expectations. At least in South Africa.
But this one has that element that no other game has. I know I may be exaggerating with this, but this game is really big. Bigger than the El Classico… Yes, I did say that and I’ll stick to that.
The thing about this game is that it has the potential to shape the future of coaches on both sides. On the home side we have Manqoba Mngqithi and Rulani Mokwena who are under extreme, but undue pressure to get out of Pitso Mosimane’s shadow. Although it’s now been nearly three years since Pitso left, there are some who are unimpressed with the duo and claim they still live off the fruits of Pitso’s toil.
Pitso isn’t making it any easier for them as he says it every time he gets the chance that the team, like he left Sundowns, is unlikely to fall apart for the next five years.
I feel sorry for Pitso. But they can also be mind games. He wants the duo to think they can never reach his level. Or he wants to protect his legacy and let it stand for as long as possible.
And it has worked when you look at how Manqoba and Rulani are trying to change the face of the team. Most of the players that Pitso left there are no longer there or not getting regular time.
The back four, which is crucial to any team’s tactical strategy, has been changed and none of the players Pitso used are present. I know you’ll say it, but it’s been three years and those players have definitely reached the end of their circle at Sundowns. Yes, that’s partially true. But a Thapelo Morena, for example, is at its best at 28.
But it has been used sparingly. And recently they let Ricardo Nascimento go. Gaston Sirino may also be on the way with Erwin Saavedra, a template drawing to fill that gap.
Manqoba and Rulani go to the game this afternoon and know that it is more than just the three points on offer on the day. It’s also about pride and tactical superiority.
Looking at their squads, the two sides are a pretty good match, so what will determine the outcome is tactical acumen. If they lose this draw, which will be the second year in a row after being knocked out by the same team last season, their stay at Chlorkop will not be a comfortable one.
There is some turmoil between Pitso and Sundowns and the management certainly wants nothing more than to sour his stay at Al Ahly. And they know that if Sundowns can beat his team, it will damage his image with the club known for their disdain for defeat.
I know this is still the group stage and even if they lose it they can still progress to the knockout stage but they know it’s a game they can’t lose – neither.
And that’s why I’m conflicted. But the game came at the right time, as it’s the only weekend I can afford to treat myself to a good whiskey. I will need the strong stuff for my heart to handle the pressure I already feel for the two sets of coaches.