The next round of two-legged ties in the CAF Champions League kicks off this weekend, with the second leg due to follow in a fortnight before the competition enters the summer’s group phase. There will be away tests for Egyptian juggernauts Al Ahly and Zamalek, the competition’s two most successful teams, while holders Esperance and four-time kings TP Mazembe are no doubt approaching their home matches differently.
Game of the week
Stade Malien-Al Ahly
With Egyptian football still struggling to recover from February’s Port Said tragedy - the Egyptian Cup was recently called off along with the cancelled league season - the fate of the country’s clubs on the continent has taken on added pressure. Ahly’s iconic manager Manuel Jose, who is lined up for a new contract despite thoughts he might retire at the end of the season, is struggling to keep his team pointed in the right direction in what figures to be a knotty trip to Bamako for a meeting with experienced campaigners Stade Malien. The Portuguese coach will be without injured experienced Brazilian striker Fabio Junior as well as team captain Hossam Ghali, who has reportedly fallen out with the manager. Jose can welcome back a trio of key figures returning to fitness: attacking midfielder Abdallah Said and the well-known duo of Wael Gomaa and Mohamed Barakat.
The other matches
The day before Sunday’s Ahly and Stade Malien match, there will be another Champions League contest in Bamako as Djoliba host Nigeria’s Sunshine Stars. Stars are full of belief after a smashing 3-0 second leg win over Angola’s Recreativo de Libolo in the last round allowed them to overturn a 4-1 deficit on away goals. Stars are well off the pace in the Nigerian Premier League, and so a run of success on the continent is their focus. Likewise for Berekum Chelsea, who are too far back to defend their first Ghanaian title, but the ambitious young club can prove themselves in a major way against Cameroonian champions Coton Sport.
Chelsea will be without suspended captain Mohammed Abdul Basit, but a team with much greater worries over missing talent is Zamalek, who are limping into their tricky trip to northern Morocco to meet Maghreb de Fes. Veteran coach Hassan Shehata will have to do without suspended captain and goalkeeper Abdul-Wahed Al-Sayed as well as explosive striker Razak Omotoyossi. Al-Sayed, a mainstay for the Whites for over a decade, has reportedly clashed with the club about his future, as has the also-injured Mido. Shehata can call on forward Amr Zaki, who scored the all-important penalty late in the match that put the five-time African champions through the last round on away goals against Africa Sports. Zamalek’s Moroccan opponents will also be without their first choice netminder, as Mohammed Sokhra was injured in a league game.
Two teams with seemingly little to worry about are Esperance and Mazembe. Indeed the two big fish look to be circling the pond waiting for the larger fight to materialise. The Tunisians will host Zimbabwean challengers Dynamos, while the Congolese also begin at home against scrappy Al Merreikh from Sudan. Merreikh’s Sudanese rivals, Al Hilal, have regularly survived well into this competition, but they could be tested against Algerian champions ASO Chlef. Etoile du Sahel were a dominant side in the Champions League in the mid-2000s, winning the trophy in 2007, and the Tunisians will seemingly have the upper hand against Ivorians AFAD Djekanou.
Player to watch
While Zaki of Zamalek will undoubtedly soak up most of the defensive attention in Fes, coach Shehata might have an ace up his sleeve in Shikabala. The talented attacker’s future at the club has been in question, with a move to Europe possibly on the cards, so after a suspension for disciplinary reasons, he is undoubtedly determined to show his best against MAS.
4 - The number of clubs remaining in this year’s edition that reached the eight-team group stage in last season’s Champions League: Al Ahly, Al Hilal, Coton Sport and Esperance.
What they said
“We can’t make any more mistakes after what happened in Angola because we are very confident we can be African champions now,” Sunshine Stars striker Dele Olorundare.
Have your say
Could Al Ahly or Zamalek face a shock loss this weekend? Any other surprises? Share your thoughts below.