Sundowns' limp exit from Champions League offers chance for renewal
Mamelodi Sundowns' limp exit from the CAF Champions League at the quarterfinal stage means they have failed in their bid to retain the crown they won in such handsome fashion in 2016.
Sundowns were defeated on penalties in their quarterfinal by Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca -- a very useful team, but one that arguably look the weakest of the remaining four sides in this year's competition. It is more likely that the winner will come from one of Egyptian giants and eight-time winners Al Ahly, Algerian side USM Alger or Tunisian outfit Etoile du Sahel.
Over the two legs Sundowns should have emerged victorious. They were denied by some poor officiating in the first leg, as well as their own profligacy in front of goal, injuries to key players and at times a lack of quality.
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane predictably chose to focus on the match officials rather than his own players, though there is truth in what he said.
"I think we lost in Pretoria. In Pretoria we had three balls [ruled offside]," he told reporters after the penalty shoot-out defeat against Wydad. "The referee said it's offside, but it was not offside. We would have scored three goals, like last year we scored three [against Zamalek in the first leg of the final]. It's very sad for football.
"I think we played very well. We came here to play and not to sit back but unfortunately in penalties anybody can win. But congratulations to Wydad. We pressed. We were not scared to lose. We saw that they could not take the stress and we played in their half and put them under pressure.
"You could see that they could not take the ball out of their half. But I have to give them credit, in the first half they really showed that they want to win."
For all of that pressure though, there were precious few goal-scoring opportunities, with captain Hlompho Kekana flashing one shot from 12 yards wide of the post. It is no secret that Sundowns have failed to rediscover their form of 2016, with the loss of Keagan Dolly to French Ligue 1 side Montpellier being more keenly felt than they might have expected.
They have also lost Ricardo Nascimento to long-term injury, talisman Anthony Laffor for the knockout stages of this year's competition, while Khama Billiat and Leonardo Castro are battling to rediscover their form.
It is perhaps the symptom of playing for two years almost non-stop, but you feel the Sundowns of 12 months ago would have comfortably dispatched Wydad and advanced.
They will get another shot at the title in 2018, whenever that competition gets underway, after finishing as runners-up in the league in 2016/17, but for now can also refocus on domestic matters, which is not necessarily a bad thing having gone trophyless through the last campaign in local football.
The league looks theirs for the taking with Wits having made a horror start, Chiefs and Pirates blowing hot and cold, and SuperSport United and Cape Town City also inconsistent. Certainly Sundowns still have the best squad in the domestic game, even if they have yet to really show that in the last few months.
Perhaps this is a chance to regroup, gather themselves and plot a path to trophy success on the domestic front; form they can then take into the continental competition. It will also be a reminder to those players that might have slipped into a comfort zone in the last six months that success must be earned and not taken for granted.