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Sundowns make heavy weather of Al-Hilal clash, but get off to good start with win

Mamelodi Sundowns strikers Cassius Mailula and Peter Shalulile

Mamelodi Sundowns strikers Cassius Mailula and Peter Shalulile

At Loftus Versfeld

Mamelodi Sundowns made heavy weather of what should have been a regulation CAF Champions League home demolition; instead, they had to settle for a 1-0 win against Sudan’s Al-Hilal at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.

On a pitch that soaked up all the rain that has affected the Highveld over the past week and a bit, Sundowns were highly functional in most areas but were unnecessarily fancy in front of goal.

It cost them plenty of goal-scoring chances and seems to be a habit that they haven’t shaken off from previous campaigns.

It cost them badly, especially on the road and in playoff games, where sharper and more defensively resolute teams have punished them.

It’s still early in the group stages, but with trips to Garoua (Coton Sport), Cairo (Al-Ahly) and the return game against Saturday’s opposition in Omdurman to come in Group B, Sundowns need to be clinical and less elaborate in front of goal.

What may save Sundowns’ blushes in the group stages is that it’s head-to-head that matters and not goal difference.

Having exited at the quarterfinal stages for three consecutive tournaments, Sundowns will know they can’t afford to be charitable in front of goal.

The bad habit has to be shaken off with immediate effect. It was a pity they didn’t bury Florent Ibenge’s side under an avalanche of goals, for the visitors were only interested in taking a point home for the better part of the game.

However, without coming close to worrying Ronwen Williams, they displayed shades of attacking football that will ask pressing questions of Sundowns and other teams when they play at home.

That said, among the host of chances Sundowns had in an uneventful first half that at least saw the rain clear, Cassius Mailula broke the deadlock in the 25th minute when Hilal goalkeeper Ali Abdalla Aboeshren parried a Neo Maema shot into his path.

It was a half chance at best, but one Sundowns made the most of and when they had a clear-cut chance on the stroke of half-time, Peter Shalulile didn’t put enough power into his left-footed shot to test Aboeshren.

It was in the second half when the hosts showcased their dominance that went unpaid.

Mailula got the ball rolling in the 47th minute when he forced an excellent save from Aboeshren but a minute late, he was wrongly adjudged to be offside by far side official Nabina Sebutu from the Ivory Coast.

In that instance, Mailula had sprung the offside trap through an excellent Maema pass, with Mailula’s first touch and shot getting the better of Aboeshren.

It didn’t have the better of Sebutu, who made the only error of what was a faultless display from the Ivorian match officials, who were led by Jean-Jacques Ndala.

Marcelo Allende’s 56th-minute freekick was well saved by Aboeshren, and despite Sundowns pouring forward with regularity, they were unable to be incisive in front of goal.

Al-Hilal were reduced to 10 men when defender Altayeb Abdallah was sent off in the 86th minute for a deliberate handball, but it didn’t have a marked effect on the outcome.

Sundowns continued to press forward, and they may not have had the requisite goal return despite 15 shots at goal, but gained the three crucial points to get their campaign on track.

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