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Time for Mahlambi to go from prospect to star player

Phakamani Mahlambi scored his first goal for Sundowns against AmaZulu Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix

Phakamani Mahlambi's premature return from Egyptian giants Al Ahly is both a blessing and a curse for the player, but he is undoubtedly a quality performer who can boost the chances of his club and country.

Mahlambi netted on his Mamelodi Sundowns debut against AmaZulu on Sunday, making a promising return from what must have felt at times like an exile in Egypt.

He was snapped up by Ahly from then South African league champions Bidvest Wits at the start of the last season, but was hardly used in Cairo, despite coming with a hefty price-tag of €1.3-million.

Before the end of his first year in North Africa he had put in a transfer request and been sent to train alone away from the rest of the Ahly squad.

So his return to South Africa is a blessing for the player, but the curse of South African players leaving the PSL for abroad and failing continues.

In 25 years those successes have been too few and far between, especially in the last decade. In fact, more latterly it is hard to even think of one.

The 21-year-old has been regarded as one of South Africa's top emerging talents, so his failure to adapt to what was ultimately a moderate step up is disappointing.

But it is also now a thing of the past and he must think only forward.

Sundowns will present him with the opportunity to regain a place in the national team and fight for honours in the CAF Champions League.

It is a moment for the rebirth of his stagnating career; one which will hopefully put him on the path to fulfilling his enormous potential.

Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane admits there is much work to get Mahlambi to where he could be, but he is at least in the right place to give it a shot.

"He's a good player, young and very raw. He needs a lot of work," Mosimane told reporters. "He will spend a year or two with me. I think then I will get a better product for South Africa.

"He reminds me of Percy Tau when he came, even Khama [Billiat]. A lot of work [was needed]."

Mosimane has certainly been credited with improving the games of Tau and Billiat before both left the club, and Mahlambi would do well to heed the advice of the coach, who will be a hard task-master to please.

"He did well [against AmaZulu], first game, first goal. He's supposed to score huh? That's why we brought him here," Mosimane said.

"I think he should have scored the other one in the first half. He allowed the defender to come from behind and take the ball from him."

Mahlambi on form is not only rich entertainment for fans, but also a clinical finisher, and while Sundowns could undoubtedly benefit from this, perhaps his most pressing need is with Bafana Bafana.

The national side have struggled in front of goal for some time, and bar Tau have been lacking the kind of player who can unlock an opposition defence or provide a finish to the good work of others.

Sundowns have two more games before the next international break, and Bafana coach Stuart Baxter will hope that Mahlambi gets enough game-time to show he is ready for selection.

The home and away Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Seychelles in October could provide the perfect platform for Mahlambi's reintroduction, especially with Keagan Dolly ruled out with a leg fracture.

Mahlambi's career has stuttered along to date, from his debut for Wits in August 2015 to a serious knee injury that kept him sidelined for 10 months later that season.

He returned for the second half of the 2016/17 season as Wits won the league title and again showed his promise, but then has almost had a wasted year at Ahly that stalled that progress.

He must now hope for an injury-free season in which he gets games under his belt to boost not only his own confidence, but others' confidence in him.