The CAF Champions League group stage hits the half-way mark this weekend with some big sides knowing they must push their way up the table now, while some are already eyeing the four spots in the semi-finals.
In both groups there are two teams on four points and two with one. In Group A, Nigeria’s Enyimba and Sudan’s Al Hilal have impressed thus far, and they will host the sides chasing them: Raja Casablanca from Morocco and Coton Sport of Cameroon respectively. In Group B, the teams at the top - Esperance of Tunisia and Raja’s city rivals Wydad - face off in Casablanca. The group’s other match is also a north African derby, with the continent’s most-successful club of all time, Egypt’s Al Ahly, trying to resurrect their campaign at home against Mouloudia Alger.
Will the giant awake?
Al Ahly maintained their streak in the Egyptian Premier League by winning a seventh on the trot earlier this month. It was another triumph for coach Manuel Jose, who returned to the club at the beginning of the year after great success in his two earlier stints there. With just the continental competition to focus on now, Ahly are keen to turn around what has been a sluggish campaign against MC Alger on Friday. “Only a win will do for us,” said Ahly striker Emad Metaeb recently. “We are going into this match for all three points since that is the way we can revive our hopes of qualifying from this group.”
The Algerians, who stayed just above relegation domestically this season, were thumped 4-0 in Casablanca by Wydad in the last round and a trip to Cairo won't ease any nerves. Ahly will have a pair of extra weapons at their disposal as Mauritanian striker Dominique da Silva is back from injury and long sought-after playmaker Waleed Soliman has been brought in via transfer. But the six-time African champions could be distracted by transfer rumours surrounding talented wide player, Ahmed Fathi, who has been linked with moves to Europe.
Sunday’s contest at the top of the table between Esperance and Wydad should be revealing as both have lifted this trophy before and they are veterans of the continental game. The Tunisians have a stronger pedigree, having reached the final of the Champions League three times, including last year, and they appear to be building momentum after winning the league for the third year running. Midfielder and captain Oussama Darragi continues to be a key figure for the Blood and Gold pulling the creative strings, and the addition of new Cameroonian signing Yannick Ndjeng proved a spur after he headed in the only goal in last round’s vital win over Ahly.
Looking for home comfort
In Group A, Enyimba are pacesetters, and they recorded an impressive 3-2 win last round at Coton Sport after having been pegged back twice. Uche Kalu tallied his second and third goals of the group stage, including the winner in Garoua. The two-time African champions from Aba have fallen well off the pace in the Nigerian Premier League, so they’re focused squarely on returning to the Champions League last four, a stage that they reached the last time they were in this event in 2008.
They will no doubt have to fight to take full advantage of Raja Casablanca, a three-time winner of the competition between 1989 and 1999 who won the Moroccan Botola this season after finishing second last year. Their new coach, Ilie Balaci, has not enjoyed the best of starts after his team were eliminated in the domestic Throne Cup this past weekend, but he says his side are determined to impress in the Champions League after drawing with Coton Sport at home and losing 1-0 at Hilal in the last round. “We need to make a great effort from now on. There are still 12 points to play for,” said Balaci ahead of the Enyimba match. “Raja will play different and much better football than in the game against Hilal. We have the capability to perform better and we have to work harder to attain positive results.”
Currently chasing their rampant domestic rivals Al Merreikh from second place in the league, Al Hilal will divide their attention in looking to keep pace with Enyimba against talented Cameroonian side Coton Sport, who retained their league title last month. But the coach of the Sudanese, Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevich, is a wily and seasoned campaigner, and he can call on in-form Zimbabwean striker Edward Sadomba, who has scored in each of the club’s last five Champions League matches.
All of the sides will play the reverse of these fixtures in two weeks time before finishing out the last two rounds of the group stage. The teams that finish first in each group then face the second-placed sides from the other in the semi-finals, which will take place in September and October.