There’s no greater achievement for any club on the African continent than lifting the CAF Champions League trophy, a feat the Brazilians achieved on 23 October 2016, a date which will forever be etched in the minds of Masandawana fans.
Any defeat or fatigue-filled display by the Chloorkop team since has often been forgiven by pointing to the star atop the club badge on their jerseys … but for how long can continental glory be used as an excuse? And when will the after effects of such a taxing campaign wear off?
It happened to Orlando Pirates in the 2015/16 campaign. Following an impressive run to the CAF Confederation Cup final, where Etoile du Sahel emerged narrow 2-1 aggregate winners in the final, The Bucs won just three of their next 10 league encounters as they played catch-up, eventually ending the season in seventh place, a massive 30 points behind eventual winners Sundowns.
They were knocked out in the semi-finals of the Telkom Knockout that year, and fell at the first hurdle of the following season’s MTN8 competition, going down 2-1 to Bidvest Wits.
The Soweto giants did reach two Nedbank Cup finals since their last African adventure, yet have not lifted silverware since their 2014 Nedbank Cup triumph.
Will history repeat itself at Chloorkop?
Initially, Sundowns did not seem too affected by their African travels, with coach Pitso Mosimane able to rotate his deep and star-studded squad, leading them to eight victories in the 10 league games following the final in Alexandria, all the while playing catch up, while also factoring in a trip to Japan for their maiden appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup.
However, all the travelling seemed to take its toll at the start of 2017, as between February and April, the Brazilians won just four of 10 league encounters, the lost points resulting in a runners-up league finish at the season’s end, with the Clever Boys pipping them to the post by three points.
Just four days after their triumph in Egypt, Downs dispatched Polokwane City 2-0 in the Last 16 of the Telkom Knockout, before losing out on penalties following a goalless draw to eventual champions SuperSport United in the quarter-finals.
The 2017 Nedbank Cup did not provide much solace, as Golden Arrows edged the African champions 1-0 in the Last 16, while KwaZulu-Natal rivals Maritzburg United dumped the Pretoria club out of this year’s MTN8 tournament in the first round.
On the continent, Sundowns were looking to defend their CAF Champions League crown this year, yet came unstuck in the quarter-finals following a penalty shootout defeat at Wydad Casablanca.
In this season’s league campaign, Sundowns have endured a jittery start, claiming just nine points from their first six games, and losing three matches already – as many as their title-winning 2015/16 campaign. Yet winning their three games in hand will see Masandawana overhaul current leaders Baroka, though games in hand don’t always convert to points on the table.
The most telling stat, however, reads as follows: in the 53 games played over the 12 months since their Champions League win, Sundowns have recorded 26 wins, 15 losses and 12 draws across all competitions. All they have to show for their efforts is a well-earned, but once-off CAF Super Cup victory over TP Mazembe.
Three losses in their past four games have the Downs faithful quickly losing patience, and quickly forgetting the monumental feat of 2016.
There’s no doubt that playing on the continent has a telling effect on domestic form, yet should a year be enough time to recover? Yes, this year’s Champions League campaign could also have influenced recent results, but with the squad at Mosimane’s disposal, can “travelling in Africa is tough” still be used an excuse?
Either way, expectant fans want results, starting with Chippa United in Sunday’s Telkom Knockout Last 16 clash.
Thereafter, it doesn’t get any easier, with Absa Premiership match-ups against Orlando Pirates and then defending champions Bidvest Wits lined up.
For local rivals, it seems the star above the Sundowns crest isn’t shining so brightly anymore. At least AmaZulu, Kaizer Chiefs and Polokwane City don’t think so.