By Zecharias Zelalem
Mamelodi Sundowns will certainly have hoped to kick off their title defense in much better fashion. The Brazilians will feel hard done by the gods of football, as despite total domination of the proceedings, they failed to score in today’s Total CAF Champions League clash with group stage debutants St. George of Ethiopia. A nil-nil draw and a share of the spoils left the Ethiopians far happier than the defending African champions.
Pitso Mosimane’s charges had a sparsely populated Lucas Moripe Stadium to entertain, but the pockets of Ethiopian fans proved to be the much more vociferous and colourful of the two. With St. George and Ethiopian emblems alike fluttering through the night in Pretoria, at times it was hard to tell which of the two sides were playing home.
St. George arrived in Pretoria having dispatched of their previous two opponents in the Champions League qualifiers without conceding a goal. Nevertheless, the higher caliber of the group stage would require a much more heightened level of play, which is why losing star striker and Champions League leading goal scorer Salahdin Said to injury was seen as a massive blow. The Horsemen lined up for their first ever group stage match with Ugandan international Robert Odongkara in goal. 2013 AFCON participants Degu Debebe and Abebaw Butako returned to South Africa and were partnered with Salahdin Bargecho and Aschalew Tamene in defense. Tesfaye Alebachew and Natnael Zeleke pieced the two man central midfield playing behind Ramkel Lok, Abdulkerim Nikiema and Prince Severin with Adane Girma another 2013 AFCON returnee up front for the Ethiopians.
From the get go, the South African side controlled possession of the ball and the Horsemen struggled to shake off the initial stage fright of finally playing on the big stage.
Robert Odongkara, a consistent presence in the St. George backline over the years was called into action early, making a quality save in the 7th minute to deny Motjeka Madisha. The Brazilians controlled possession, and may have had up to 70% of it at one time. Despite St. George’s midfield being in total disarray at times, they weren’t made to pay for it due to the South African side’s lack of killer instinct.
57th minute in Bafana Bafana stalwart Sibusiso Vilakazi was completely unmarked in the box, but the picture perfect cross delivered to him was wasted. He volleyed it just wide of the mark with his side of the goal gaping wide open. The Ethiopians scrambled to keep the affair goalless.
In the second half, the defending Ethiopian Premier League champions, started to gel and make attempts at moving forward. A series of passes coordinated between the likes of Tesfaye Alebachew and Natnael Zeleke got the crowd in a frenzy, but there was no finishing product. Despite St. George growing in confidence somewhat, they were unable to threaten Kennedy Mweene in the opposite goal.
As the game winded down, St. George’s backline held firm, deflecting crosses and shots out for corners. Salahdin Bargecho, recently excluded from latest Ethiopian national team call up proved a matured presence in the backline, while Aschalew Tamene makes a case for his eventual sale to foreign clubs. He won the 2015-16 Ethiopian Premier League’s best player award and it showed in Pretoria.
Although St. George rarely threatened, a counter attack opportunity could have proven fatal for the Brazilians in the 70th when Ramkel Lok and Nikiema were bearing down on goal in a two on one situation, but hesitation by Ramkel botched the opportunity and Mamelodi Sundowns managed to recollect themselves.
St. George brought on Ugandan Yasser Mugerwa and veteran Minyahile Teshome, Prince Severin being brought off while Adane Girma and Tesfaye Alebachew both appear to have been taken off as a result of knocks they suffered. In injury time, Ethiopian U-20 striker Abubakar Sani was thrown into the fray. Mart Nooij’s side managed to hold on.
At full time, the Ethiopians were jubilant. 0-0 against the defending African champions is no easy feat. The result brought memories of the Ethiopian national team’s much feted 2013 AFCON returned that also started with a baptism of fire against the then defending African champions, Zambia. That game ended in a 1-1 draw with tonight’s opposing keeper Kennedy Mweene also in goal that day, for Zambia.
Pitso Mosimane had complained about the congested fixture schedule his side were forced to adapt to. Nevertheless, he won’t be happy with today’s result. The last time Pitso faced an Ethiopian side was in 2012, when he was coach of the South African national team. His Bafana Bafana side were held 1-1 at home to the Walyas in World Cup qualifying, which resulted in his sacking afterwards. Today’s game was a missed opportunity for him to exorcise some personal demons.
St. George, who are currently in the Ethiopian Premier League driver’s seat, travel back home where they will take on Ethio- Electricity FC on Thursday. Their title aspirations will then be given a back seat to their second Champions League fixture, which is scheduled for May 23rd against Tunisian giant Esperance de Tunis. The Tunisians defeated Congolese side AS Vita 3-1 to top group C, Mamelodi Sundowns and St. George are tied for second after one round.