Last four clubs set in Africa
© AFP

It was a dramatic weekend in the CAF Champions League as the group stage came to an end and the semi-final pairings were finalised. Esperance, winners of Group B after holding on for a 1-1 draw at Al Ahly, will meet Al Hilal in the last four after the Sudanese snatched second in Group A with a scoreless stalemate at Raja Casablanca on Sunday. A point was enough to put them ahead of Coton Sport, who lost at Enyimba 2-0. The Nigerians had already qualified as winners of Group A, and they will take on Wydad Casablanca in the semi-finals.

Wydad and Egypt’s Al Ahly both finished on seven points in Group B - three behind Esperance - with the Moroccans advancing by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker despite losing on Friday 3-1 at Mouloudia Alger. It was the first win in the group stage by the Algerians, who end with five points – all won at home. With Reda Babouche scoring a first half brace and Herve Oussale putting Alger 3-0 up at the hour mark, Ahly knew that they had a good shout at leaping WAC for second with a victory.

Missed chances for Red Devils
Al Ahly began the match slowly and went behind near the quarter-hour mark when the towering Banana Yaya headed the visitors in front. Following the goal by the young Cameroon defender, the six-time champions struggled to build any intensity for the remainder of the first half. However, Mohamed Aboutrika answered with a header of his own from a corner kick to equalise ten minutes after the break and set up a grand finale that Ahly just could not capitalise on. In the last half hour, Aboutrika, Mohamed Fadl, Mohamed Shawky and Dominique Da Silva all missed chances when they looked more likely to score, and Fadl had a shot saved off the line in the dying moments in front of a stunned Cairo Stadium crowd so used to success.

Afterwards, Ahly’s Portuguese coach Manuel Jose, who left club captain Hossam Ghaly on the bench despite his return from suspension, lamented the relative lack of experience in his team as well as missing the injured Mohamed Barakat. And while he thought his side could have won, he sees big things ahead for the Red Devils. “There were four or five clear chances we missed in the second half, but I’m proud of the performance regardless of the result,” said the iconic boss. “We did not have luck today, but the future is on Ahly’s side with our new recruits. We expect to do better in the future.”

We are trying to win the title, and our chances of doing that are better against any other opponent except Ahly
Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul on the extra positive of eliminating Al Ahly

Esperance’s coach, Nabil Maaloul, said before the match that his strategy would be to get an early goal and hang on for a draw, so he was obviously pleased with the performance of his side, who finish the group stage undefeated but with just two wins from six matches. He said it was particularly useful for last season’s runners-up to eliminate Africa’s most successful club as a rival moving forward. “We are trying to win the title, and our chances of doing that are better against any other opponent except Ahly,” he said before admitting some sympathy with the eliminated giants. “Ahly are great champions with an amazing history. They played a good game today but were just unlucky.”

Enyimba settles Group A
Sudan’s Al Hilal did just enough to reach the last four, but ultimately they will be looking to Nigeria in thanks for the People’s Elephant and their 2-0 defeat of Coton Sport. One of the group’s early pacesetters, Hilal had lost their last two matches, and they clearly had a road point on their mind at bottom side Raja, who drew all three of their home contests 0-0 for all three of the points they managed in the section.

By contrast, Coton Sport had won their last two contests to move ahead of Hilal, but they had the misfortune to close their campaign in Aba against the most impressive side in the event so far. Not only did Enyimba amass 14 points - by far the most in either group - but they have gone through all 11 of their Champions League matches unbeaten this season. The 2003 and 2004 African champions were again confident in their dismissal of the desperate Cameroonian side, who were runners-up in this event in 2008.

Ifeanyi Ede got the home party started with a goal late in the first half, and Valentine Nwabili ended the visitor’s hopes with the second in the 85th minute. With the most solid defence in the tournament, the Nigerians were seldom threatened on a very wet pitch. In the end, Hilal earned eight points, one better than their rivals from Cameroon.

The first leg of the semi-finals will take place in two weeks with the return another fortnight after that. November’s final will also be over two legs, and the winner will qualify for December's FIFA Club World Cup.