With the last round of group stage action set for this weekend, the semi-final line-up for the African Champions League will be settled by Monday. Three of the openings are still up for grabs, with a trio of former champions in Group B fighting for two spots and a pair of ambitious sides neck and neck for second in Group A.
Nigeria's Enyimba are the only team to have guaranteed a spot in the last four, having swept through Group A with three wins and two draws from their five matches. The People's Elephant, as the Aba-based club are known, will still have a say in the drama, however, as they host Cameroon's Coton Sport, who are trying to hold off Al Hilal of Sudan in the race for second place. Both clubs are on seven points, but the Cameroonian side have the advantage of the tie-break based on better head-to-head goal difference. Having won their last two matches, albeit at home, that means Coton Sport just have to equal or better the ambitious Sudanese side's result away to already eliminated Raja Casablanca.
Putting pressure on their defence will be the key.
Finalists in 2008, Coton Sport will be eyeing revenge at Enyimba Stadium for a loss the Nigerians inflicted on them in usually fortress-like Roumde Adjia Stadium at the end of July. They have rebounded in the last month with impressive victories in their last two group matches in Garoua, beating Al Hilal comfortably before coming from behind to see off three-time African champions Raja 2-1 thanks to a brace from Osmaila Baba last weekend. Enyimba's breakout star of the event, Uche Kalu, scored a double of his own the last time the two teams met, including the deciding goal in the 85th minute of a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Enyimba have been positively buoyant, and their confidence is peaking after a 2-1 win in Omdurman over a quality Hilal side. Having been left behind during this league season in Nigeria, the 2003 and 2004 African champions have focused on the continental scene and gone through all of their ten matches unbeaten thus far. They will play whatever side finishes second in Group B in the semi-finals, which begin in two weeks and will be completed by the middle of October.
Three teams, two spots left
Group B has shaped up to be a three-team race, with the tournament's most successful team historically, Al Ahly, needing to beat table-topping Esperance at Cairo Stadium to have a chance of winning their seventh African crown. On nine points, the Tunisians know that a draw will be enough for them to hold off Ahly, who are three behind, and a win will be too good for second-placed Wydad Casablanca, who have seven points and face a trip to eliminated Mouloudia Alger on Sunday.
Ahly have won this event four times in the last decade and have made trips to another final and semi-final, but Esperance's pedigree is similarly impressive. Despite having lifted the trophy just once in their history, the Blood and Gold have reached a further six semi-finals. Before losing a one-sided final last year to TP Mazembe, they conquered Ahly on away goals over two feisty legs in the last four.
Last week, the Egyptian giants held for a 1-1 draw at Wydad when a loss would have sent them packing, and they know they will have to do better against an undefeated and confident Esperance, who breezed past MC Alger 4-0 behind Cameroon striker Yannick Ndjeng's flashy hat-trick on the last matchday. Ahly coach Manuel Jose has no doubt been preparing his side for the explosive 21-year-old, who arrived at Esperance in July and promptly scored the winner against the Egyptians in a 1-0 victory earlier in the group stage.
Ahly can advance if they win by a margin of two goals or more, but should they triumph by just a single goal, they will lose the tie-breaker to Esperance and need Wydad to take no more than a point in Algiers. Luckily for the Egyptians, Wydad have drawn four of their five matches in the group. More foreboding for Ahly's hopes is that the Moroccans' only win came against Mouloudia Alger – a 4-0 thrashing in July.
For his part, Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul says that his team will not play defensively in Cairo, at least at the outset. “I think going forward and putting pressure on their defence will be the key,” said the veteran coach. “I hope we can score first because then it will be very difficult for Ahly to score three times.”