After rising to the top in an eventful group stage, former champions Esperance of Tunisia and Nigeria's Enyimba face tricky away dates in the first leg of the CAF Champions League semi-finals this weekend.
The north Africans, who lost in last year's final to TP Mazembe, travel to Sudan to meet Al Hilal, who have won four of five home contests so far in the competition. Champions in 2003 and 2004, Enyimba meet the 1992 title holders Wydad Casablanca in Morocco with an even tougher task on their plates. The Red and Whites have won four and drawn two at the Stade Mohamed V while racking up an impressive plus-ten goal difference. However, the two favourites have proven themselves effective road warriors so far, with Esperance drawing all three away contests in the group stage and Enyimba claiming three wins and two draws from their five matches outside of Nigeria.
With three previous champions still alive and Al Hilal Sudan's most successful club, there is more than enough pedigree to go around in the last four. Esperance are the most experienced at these late stages of the continent's biggest club event. Along with their final appearance last year, the Blood and Gold won the competition in 1994 and have reached a further five semi-finals since 1999. Considering that Enyimba did not win their first Nigerian title until a decade ago, the People's Elephant have had a meteoric rise in African football, having now reached the semi-finals of the Champions League twice in the last four years alongside their back-to-back triumphs.
Since the introduction of the current format of the competition in 1997, the four semi-finalists have not met each other at this late stage. And though the four have reached the glory end of the event, their recent fortunes have been divergent. Enyimba were the big winners of the group stage, amassing 14 points in an undefeated run through six matches. At the half-way stage, they were even with Hilal, but while the Sudanese managed just one point from their final three matches, the Aba-based side finished strongly with two wins and a draw – including an impressive come-from-behind victory in Omdurman over Hilal. The venerable Sudan club just managed to sneak into the last four by a point ahead of Coton Sport thanks to a nervy scoreless draw at Raja Casablanca in their last match and some help from the Nigerians, who beat the hard-charging Cameroonians.
Esperance also finished the group stage undefeated, but with four draws, their performance was more professional than powerful. But their solidity was proved on the final matchday when they managed to just hang on for a 1-1 draw at Al Ahly when the Egyptian giants needed to win to advance. The result left Esperance on ten points, three ahead of Wydad and Ahly, who lost out on an away-goal tiebreaker to the Moroccan club. Wydad stayed alive, if limping, despite losing a one-sided contest 3-1 at Mouloudia Alger, who had not won a match previously in the group stage. That came on the heels of three consecutive draws for the Casablanca club, who managed to advance despite winning just once in six matches.
The elephant stumbles
It hasn't been all positives in the run-up to the last four for Enyimba, who lost 1-0 in the final of the domestic Federation Cup last weekend to Heartland. It was their second defeat in the ultimate match of the cup in as many years, and it will worry supporters that substitute goalkeeper Paul Godwin, who has performed admirably since stepping into the side a month ago, could have done more on the goal. That, along with concerns of fixture congestion in the league – where they are well off the pace of the leaders – has the People's Elephant focused firmly on winning their third Champions League. They have admitted to being further motivated by the chance to appear in the FIFA Club World Cup at the end of the year, after having missed out on the chance after their previous continental glories.
Coach Felix Okey Emordi insisted recently that his team would prove their worth at Wydad this weekend. “We were hugely disappointed to lose in the cup, but we are now focused on our match in Morocco,” he said. “The match will be completely different, and we are determined to make it up to our fans.” Having proved themselves one of the more solid defensive units in the competition, Enyimba have been led in attack by emerging forward Uche Kalu, who scored four goals in the group stage as well as winning a pair of penalties. They will no doubt be buoyed by their success in the group stage against Wydad's rivals Raja, who the Nigerians beat in Aba before drawing 0-0 in Casablanca. From the other side, the Moroccans also had success against a Nigerian club earlier in the competition, having eliminated Kano Pillars by a 2-0 aggregate score in the preliminary stages.
In the other pairing, Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul has said that the tag of favourites is not worth much at this stage of the competition: “In the Champions League, nothing should be assumed."