Picking a winner at the semi-final stage of any competition is always a tough task, but when the last four comprises three former winners and a perennial favourite for the trophy it becomes practically impossible. The pedigree of the final four standing in the race for the 2006 CAF Champions League glory could hardly be higher, with Egypt's Al Ahly, South Africa's Orlando Pirates and ASEC Abidjan of Côte d'Ivoire having already enjoyed the honour of winning the trophy, and former CAF Cup winners CS Sfaxien of Tunisia hoping to emulate them this time around.
In what could easily have been the final the first semi-final clash sees reigning African champions Al Ahly take on 1998 winners ASEC Abidjan. The Egyptian giants have their sights set on joining Enyimba of Nigeria and TP Englebert of Congo-Kinshasa in the history books as the only sides to win the continent's biggest crown in consecutive years. After being giving a bye in the preliminary rounds, the Red Devils have put together an impressive title defence to date, falling to a solitary defeat at the hands of fellow semi-finalists CSS.
If they are to reach the final, however, and unsettle a formidable Ivorian defence that has only been breached twice in 12 matches, the Cairo-based giants will need their goalscoring quartet Osama Hosni, Mohamed Shawki, Flavio and Mohamed Aboutrika to be on their game. After seeing his side net 11 goals in the group phase against JS Kabylie, Asante Kotoko and CSS, though, coach Manuel Jose has every reason to be confident of his side's offensive capabilities.
Over in the Ivorian camp, meanwhile, confidence is sky high. Having strolled through their qualifying group without losing a game (scoring 11 goals and conceding one in the process), the Abidjan outfit have just bagged their seventh consecutive league title. Understandably, Patrick Liewig's charges are approaching Sunday's vital first leg in good heart, and with rising stars Ya Konan Didier and Soro Bakary getting the nod from new national coach Uli Stielike for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2008 qualifier against Gabon following their excellent club form this season, the immediate future looks bright for the Ivorians.
"You can tell the rest of Africa from me that ASEC is in the Champions League to reclaim its place at the top," announced Roger Ouegnin, the club's flamboyant president on the eve of the group phase. "Our first objective is to reach the semis. But let me tell you right now that after that we'll be playing in the final." Having already secured objective number one, it remains to be seen whether high-flying ASEC can fulfil Ouegnin's second prediction by overcoming Al Ahly.
CSS aiming to scale the heights
In the second semi-final Club Sportif Sfaxien will have to negotiate their way past South Africa's Orlando Pirates if they are to engrave their name on the famous trophy for the first time. The tremendous potential of Mrad Mahjoub's well-honed outfit was there for all to see back in July when they ended Al Ahly's incredible 78-game, two-year unbeaten run on African soil courtesy of a goal from defender Issam Merdassi.
That eye-catching result got the Clubistes off to the best possible start in a qualification group that also featured JS Kabylie and Asante Kotoko, two other big names in the African game. The Tunisians clinched top spot in the group after stringing together a series of fine results that culminated with a 2-1 victory over the Kumasi side that saw Ghanaian import Joetex Frimpong pop up with the winner against his compatriots.
Although Mahjoub will be looking to Frimpong to repeat the trick against the Pirates, he will also have his hopes pinned on his scintillating strike partner Tarek Ziadi and midfielder Karim Nafti. Their excellent recent form certainly seems to have impressed Tunisia boss Roger Lemerre, who has called the duo up for the qualifying match against Sudan on 7 October.
Saturday's opponents Orlando Pirates reached the semis after overcoming Enyimba in a tight battle for second place in Group A. The Nigerians only needed a goalless draw in their final group clash against the determined South Africans, but reckoned without fellow countryman and former Enyimba man Onyekachi Okonkwo. It was the man they call 'Tico' who scored the only goal of the game after 30 minutes to send the 1995 CAF Champions League winners through to the semi-finals. Having picked up winners medals in 2003 and 2004 with his former employers, the Nigerian knows what the buccaneering Pirates need to do to reach the final: "To get through we all need believe in ourselves. We have to be prepared to go out there and give it absolutely everything."
The South Africans have come a long way and against CSS find themselves being cast as outsiders once more. Nevertheless, it is a role that Milutin Sredojevic's undaunted players are not afraid to play.
CAF Champions League semi-final fixtures
30 September 2006
Orlando Pirates (RSA) - CS Sfaxien (TUN)
1 October 2006
Al Ahly (EGY) - ASEC Abidjan (CIV)
14 October 2006
CS Sfaxien (TUN) - Orlando Pirates (RSA)
15 October 2006
ASEC Abidjan (CIV) - Al Ahly (EGY)