JOHANNESBURG: Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa can continue an amazing four-month transition from flops to tops if they avoid defeat at home to Zamalek of Egypt on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) in the CAF Champions League.
A point at Lucas ‘Masterpieces’ Moripe Stadium near Pretoria will suffice to seal first place in Group B and take the South African side to the semi-finals of the premier African club football competition.
It will also complete a remarkable turnaround for Sundowns, who were eliminated in the final qualifying round for the Champions League last April by V Club from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Demoted to the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup, Sundowns were beaten by Medeama of Ghana in a play-off to suffer further African disappointment.
But on the eve of June draw for the Champions League groups, the organisers kicked out V Club for using a banned player and Sundowns were reinstated.
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane hastily cancelled plans to watch the Copa America centenary edition in the United States and his squad had to abandon holidays with families and friends.
Given a third chance to succeed in Africa, Sundowns shocked Entente Setif in Algeria only to have the 2-0 win scrapped when the losers were disqualified over a pitch invasion.
Undismayed, Sundowns beat twice African champions Enyimba of Nigeria near Pretoria and five-time African champions Zamalek in Cairo to build a three-point lead halfway through the group stage.
“We hope we do not have to wake up from this dream” said former national team striker and coach Mosimane ahead of the matchday 4 clash with Zamalek.
“I think we have found a way of playing successfully against north African opponents and making it difficult for them to beat us.
“It is wonderful to watch my team playing with such enjoyment and fearlessness. Our mental approach has been a key factor.”
Zamalek will miss injured midfielder Mohamed Ibrahim, who scored in the 2-1 defeat by Sundowns, but are likely semi-finalists whatever the Pretoria result as they host Enyimba next month.
Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and Zesco United of Zambia will also secure semi-finals places from Group A if both win.
The Moroccans host bottom-of-the-table Al Ahly of Egypt, winners of the competition a record eight times, while the Zambians are away to ASEC Mimosas of the Ivory Coast.
Ahly have managed just one point from a possible nine under Netherlands-born former Tottenham Hotspur manager Martin Jol with goalkeeping blunders and a goal-shy attack proving costly.
Wydad have rewarded coach John Toshack, the ex-Wales striker and manager, for a good CAF run with a two-year extension to his contract until June 2018.
They top the table with seven points, Zesco have six, ASEC three and Ahly just one.
Toshack will hope for a return to form by leading scorer Reda Hajhouj, who averaged a goal a game in six qualifiers only to fire three blanks in group matches.
ASEC must improve a dismal CAF home record this season of one win in four matches to beat Zesco and get back into contention for a last-four place.