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African Football League Preview: Mamelodi Sundowns

The inaugural edition of the African Football League (AFL) will begin on Friday when the eight-team competition commences with a duel between Egypt’s Al Ahly and Simba SC of Tanzania. Pan-Africa Football is previewing each participating club and below we focus on the dominant club in South African football, Mamelodi Sundowns, as they attempt to capture their first African club competition trophy since 2016:

Background

Mamelodi Sundowns are well established as the dominant club in South African football at this point having won the last six editions of the country’s top-tier DStv Premiership. Known for their attractive style of play, “The Brazilians” based in Pretoria continue to reach new milestones in African football with the most notable achievement arriving in 2016 when they captured the CAF Champions League. With a squad that contains quality depth at all positions and a record of accomplishments, Sundowns resemble a European super club with their approach and have the most credible claim to being the best club in sub-Saharan Africa.

Schedule

Quarterfinals

1st Leg- @ Petro de Luanda on October 21 in Luanda

2nd Leg- vs Petro de Luanda on October 24 in Pretoria

Notable Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals

FW Júnior Mendieta (ARG)- Transfer from Stellenbosch FC (RSA)

FW Lucas Ribeiro Costa (BRA)- Transfer from Beveren (BEL)

MF Thapelo Maseko (RSA)- Transfer from SuperSport United (RSA)

MF Lesiba Nku (RSA)- Transfer from Marumo Gallants (RSA)

MF Bathusi Aubaas (RSA)- Transfer from TS Galaxy (RSA)

Departures

FW Cassius Mailula (RSA)- Transfer to Toronto FC (CAN)

MF Andile Jali (RSA)- Transfer to Swallows FC (RSA)

MF Haashim Domingo (RSA)- Transfer to Raja CA (MAR)

MF Grant Margeman (RSA)- Transfer to SuperSport United (RSA)

DF Lyle Lakay (RSA)- Transfer to SuperSport United (RSA)

FW Gift Motupa (RSA)- Released

FW Bradley Ralani (RSA)- Released

GK Kennedy Mweene (ZAM)- Retired

Head Coach- Rhulani Mokwena

A well studied tactician who has familial ties to South African footballing legend Jomo Sono, the 36-year-old rose through the ranks quickly as an assistant under Pitso Mosimane at Sundowns. After brief spells as an assistant and interim coach with Orlando Pirates and Chippa United, Mokwena returned to Sundowns in 2020 as a co-coach with fellow assistant Manqoba Mngqithi before being named the head coach in October 2022.

Mokwena draws many comparisons to Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola due to the style of play of his team: “My belief is that the more control you have from a possession stance, the better defensively you are,” he said to Al Jazeera. Sundowns are known for their ability to maintain high levels of pressure on opponents while dominating the ball, major reasons why Masandawana continue to dominate even establish South African power clubs like Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. Mokwena is flexible with his formation, at times using three or four defenders but always utilizing fullbacks or wingbacks to provide the width that opens up space for the Sundowns attack to penetrate through the middle.

Goalkeeping

South Africa national team goalkeeper Ronwen Williams is well established as the country’s best shot stopper but has moments that give Sundowns supporters headaches

South Africa national team goalkeeper Ronwen Williams arrived for close to €1 million euros ahead of last season and the 31-year-old is capable of both amazing and bewildering Sundowns supporters. The former SuperSport United player is an excellent shot stopper, is very good with the ball at his feet and strong when facing penalty kicks. However, Williams is also capable of making costly mistakes and is prone to being creative with the ball when the situation does not call for it.

Backing up Williams is Reyaad Pieterse and Uganda national team legend Denis Onyango, who was given a one-year contract to extend his stay and give the club a reliable presence if needed.

Defense

Khuliso Mudau (on the left) and Aubrey Modiba (right) are wingbacks who provide the width to the Sundowns attack with their willingness to get up and down the flanks

Mokwena loves wide defenders who can support the Sundowns attack with wingbacks Aubrey Modiba and Khuliso Mudau the likely candidates to take the pitch in the AFL. Mudau is particularly adept at getting up and down on his favored right wing and has excellent acceleration to get to the opposition end line for crosses. Modiba is a similar player whose strength lies with his excellent left foot that is useful on set piece situations.

In the center of defense, Mokwena may opt for either two or three center backs. Mothobi Mvala is an established option who brings tough tackling and tenacity. Moroccan central defender Abdelmounaim Boutouil is now a more regular option for Mokwena after paperwork issues delayed his arrival last season and Rivaldo Coetzee is a technically skilled option who can play as a central defender or defensive midfielder. Grant Kekana and Mosa Lebusa are other options who provide quality depth.

Midfield

Teboho Mokoena is a constant presence in the Sundowns midfield who is valuable on both defense and attack with his excellent technique and positioning

The axis of the Sundowns midfield is Teboho Mokoena who is ever present in the eleven since joining from SuperSport United in 2022. The 26-year-old can unlock defenses with his intelligent passing and possesses a fierce long range shot that forces defenses to stay honest. Sipho Mbule and Coetzee are the options to lie deeper in support of Mokoena and focus more on fulfilling defensive duties. Bongani Zungu is another veteran option who has not made the impact many were expecting after he joined Sundowns following a long spell in European club football.

In the attacking midfield, Chilean playmaker Marcelo Allende is a versatile option who can operate centrally or on the wing if necessary. Neo Maema enjoyed an excellent 2022-23 season thanks to his ability to move the ball forward quickly and make smart supporting runs into the penalty area. Thapelo Maseko is a promising talent who arrived from SuperSport United this season and he joins Sphelele Mkhulise as depth options who operate in attacking positions.

Forwards

Namibian striker Peter Shalulile is a predator in the penalty box whose instincts and finishing ability keep him locked in at the top of the scoring charts in South African football

Sundowns can always rely on their excellent attack to outscore opponents in domestic league play and Peter Shalulile is the striker who is a nightmare for defenses. The Namibian continues to set records in South African football because of his smart runs and high work rate which makes him a perfect target for the numerous creative presences Sundowns possess.

Shalulile is supported by a cast of excellent dribblers and playmakers that include the aforementioned Allende, new Argentinean acquisition Júnior Mendieta and of course Themba Zwane. Zwane is a brilliant attacker who can operate on the wing in a three-player forward line or a bit deeper where he can run at defenders and initiate quick combination plays around the penalty area. The most significant acquisition this season for Sundowns is the arrival of Brazilian attacker Lucas Ribeiro Costa from European football, another dynamic player who is versatile with the capability to set up goals as well as finish.

Prognosis

Sundowns are always in the discussion to win African club competitions but in recent times have come up short of their goals in the CAF Champions League due to costly defensive mistakes at crucial moments. Set piece defending and the quality of defensive players are issues that arise in the later stages of these competitions and this is something supporters and experts will be watching closely in the AFL. Sundowns should be able to progress past Petro de Luanda in the quarterfinals, a team who eliminated them in the Champions League two seasons ago, and now the goal for Mokwena and his team is to prove they can execute at the highest level of African football by taking down either Simba or Al Ahly in the semifinals which would make them the favorite to win the competition.

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