While the European leagues have been braving a decidedly chilly winter, things are certainly hotting up down in North Africa. With the championship races having reached the halfway point in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and with everything still to play for, the tension is mounting.
Algeria: Setif lead the way
With 17 games gone in Algeria, the title race is a long way from being decided. Sitting in pole position at the moment are ES Setif, who are looking for their second championship in three seasons. Denied the double last year by JS Kabylie, the Black Eagles are hoping to land the league crown for the fourth time in their history.
Boasting the most deadly strike partnership in the land in Lamouri Djediat and Nabil Hemani, the scorers of 16 goals between them this term, they have the potential to go and do just that. "The form we've shown up to now is what you'd expect of a future championship-winning team," said Setif midfielder Farouk Belkaid. "All we need to do is to keep it going to the end of the season. I don't see any reason why the title shouldn't be ours."
Defending champions and eternal league favourites JSK will be hard pressed to repeat last season's success. The Canaries are currently lying fourth, some eight points behind the pacesetters. Leading the way among the country's Kabyle clubs are JSM Bejaia, who stand second, five points adrift of Setif. The foundation of JSM's title push has been a watertight defence that has conceded just seven goals so far.
Jean-Yves Chay's men have an excellent chance to cut the gap on the leaders this Thursday when they travel to Setif for a clash that could go a long way to deciding the destiny of the title.
While the top two fight it out, third-placed CA Bordj Bou Arreridj will be hoping to capitalise and close the six-point gap that separates them from the summit. Twelfth last time out, the unfancied Grasshoppers have surprised everyone this term, overshadowing the efforts of traditional domestic powerhouses ASO Chlef, USM Alger and MC Alger, who currently find themselves sixth, ninth and tenth respectively.
Top three: ES Setif (34 pts), JSM Bejaia (29), CA BBA (28)
Bottom three: MC Saida (19), RC Kouba (18), USM Blida (14)
Top scorers: Lamouri Djediat, Mohamed Messaoud, Youcef Saibi (9 goals)
Morocco: Raja sitting pretty
It has been five long seasons since Raja Casablanca last won the league. The Green Devils are anxious to end that barren run and secure their ninth championship. And with 19 games gone they look as if they might achieve their objective. Raja have a three-point lead over title outsiders Difaa d'El Jadida and are seven points clear of city rivals WAC in third, and could well pull away in the coming weeks. After dominating in the early stages of the competition, Francois Bracci's unfashionable side has been dropping points of late, allowing the in-form Raja to pull clear.
Title holders FAR Rabat are 13 points behind in fifth, albeit with two games in hand, while fellow early-season candidates OC Khouribga are virtually out of the race, despite lying one place above them. Champions for the first time in 2007, Les Phosphatiers already have five defeats and seven draws to their name and have 11 points to make up on the frontrunners.
Surprise packages Mogreb Athletic Tetouan could yet improve on their seventh place and muscle their way into the leading group. To do that, however, they will need to overcome the departure of striker Pierre Lotti Koko'o, the championship's top scorer. The Cameroonian has left the Botola, the Moroccan top flight, to join Al Ahly Tripoli, a tough blow for MA but a stroke of good fortune for AS Sale's Aliou Kante, FAR's Mustapha Allaoui and Raja's Hassan Tair, who are all poised to overtake him in the scoring charts.
Top three: Raja Casablanca (39 pts), DH El Jedida (36), WAC Casablanca (32)
Bottom three: JS Massira (19), SCC Mohammedia (17), MC Oujda (16)
Top scorers: Koko'o Pierre Lotti (8 goals), Aliou Kante (7), Mustapha Allaoui, Hassan Tair (6)
Tunisia: The usual suspects
The top of the table in Tunisia currently resembles the country's all-time honours board. Esperance Sportive de Tunis have won the league 20 times in all, more than any other club in the land, and stand three points clear of ten-time winners Club Africain and six points ahead of Etoile Sportive du Sahel, third in the rankings with eight championships. Fourth-placed Club Sportif Sfaxien are also the country's fourth-most successful club, although with a 14-point gap to make up on the Sang et Or, there is little chance of them adding to their collection of seven titles.
The match that could decide the championship takes place on 1 March, when Esperance and Club Africain face off in the Tunis derby with more than local pride at stake. Should Jose de Morais's league leaders go on to secure a 21st league crown for Esperance, a good deal of the credit should go to front man Michael Eneramo. The Nigerian leads the scoring charts with 14 goals so far this season, alerting the attention of several European scouts in the process.
As for Club Africain, the only undefeated team in the league, their strength has been in defence. Even so, despite seeing their team concede only seven times in 19 games, the fans are still debating as to whether 34-year-old Adel Nefzi or his younger understudy Sabeur Ben Rejeb should get the goalkeeping duties on a permanent basis.
Top three: Esperance ST (44 pts), Club Africain (41), Etoile Sportive du Sahel (38)
Bottom three: AS Marsa (16), Jendouba Sport (14), AS Kasserine (13)
Top scorers: Michael Eneramo (14 goals), Ammar Jemal (9), Aymen Ayari, Saber Khlifa (7)