Fifty-six clubs embarked in February on the road that leads to the CAF Champions League final, and with only six matches left in the competition, four remain in contention for the title. North African giants Al Ahly and Esperance contested last year's decider and have shared five semi-final places among them in the last three years, and they appear on course to meet in November's two-legged final again.
On the other hand, Coton Sport and Orlando Pirates are less seasoned campaigners when it comes to the showpiece of African club competition and are looking to spring a surprise on the Arab sides. The two finalists will be decided over two legs in October, with the winner representing the continent in December's FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco.
Match of the week
Coton Sport - Al Ahly
Ahly are holders and record seven-time champions, and they also have the historical edge on Coton Sport, having defeated them in the Cameroon club's only final - 4-2 on aggregate in 2008. However, Mohamed Youssef, coach of the Cairo giants, will be without strikers Emad Meteab and Amr Gamal, who miss out on the trip to Cameroon because of injury. Defender Ramy Rabia is nonetheless confident they will still do well. "We will have to double our efforts to achieve a good result before finishing things in the return leg." Coton Sport, meanwhile, will be banking on crowd support and have told fans they can watch the game for free. Goalkeeper Loic Feudjou says that they are looking for a win at home. "The ideal outcome is victory regardless of the scoreline. If we win at home, it will be a big advantage in our efforts to reach the final since we have a good record in away games this season," he said.
Orlando Pirates are the only club from southern Africa to have won the competition, but that was 18 years ago, and since then, teams from the region have been little more than bit-players, with Zimbabwean club Dynamos (1998) and South Africa's Sundowns (2001) the only teams since to make it to the decisive match. The Buccaneers, who are hoping to make their second final appearance, will host formidable opponents in Tunisian club Esperance, who have played in the last three finals. The home side will be without left-back Patrick Phungwayo, who injured himself in the clubs' penalty shoot-out defeat in the final of a domestic cup on the weekend and will be out for several months. Coach Roger de Sa naturally rates Esperance highly. "We know Esperance is a well-organised side, and we will have to prepare well to play against them. We will need better organisation and also to be clinical in front of goal, but above all, we must also respect them as they are not pushovers.” Esperance coach Maher Kanzari, meanwhile, said his side will play offensively on the road in South Africa. "Our success in recent years has been built around taking the game to our opponents. We believe in soccer’s oldest adage that attacking is the best form of defence."
Player to watch
Wael Gomaa is one of a host of players in the Al Ahly side who are facing four incredibly important matches in the next six weeks. The defender captains the Al Ahly side that will take on Coton Sport in the semi-final of the Champions League, and he is also hoping to lead the Egyptian national side to the FIFA World Cup™ finals in Brazil via a two-legged play-off against Ghana. The 38-year-old, who is nursing a hamstring injury and will face a late fitness test ahead of the first leg, is confident that the Al Ahly internationals will be at their best in all four matches. "Ahly players can split their concentration between the two games, Coton Sport and Ghana," he explained.
2 - The number of clubs that have managed to advance to the final of the competition after starting the group stage with just one point from their opening two matches. South African club Sundowns advanced to the 2001 final, while Goldfields also managed it in 1997, although both went on to lose the final. Al Ahly can become the third club to achieve that feat if they overcome Coton Sport.
What they said
Senzo Meyiwa, Orlando Pirates goalkeeper: "I call on the entire country to be with us. We are working hard at training and our target is to get the win at home."
Have your say
Can Orlando Pirates upset Esperance and go on and lift the trophy for the second time in their history?