African last four on a knife-edge
© AFP

Although the four sides left in the CAF Champions League have strong pedigrees on the continental and domestic stages, they all are desperate to claim the continent’s biggest club prize to solidify their place among the true elite. Three of them have lifted the trophy before, but other than Enyimba’s back-to-back triumphs in 2003 and 2004, one has to go back to 1992 and 1994 for Wydad Casablanca’s and Esperance’s triumphs respectively.

Esperance in particular are anxious to bolster their CV and dispel the perception that they are “nearly men” after a series of close calls. They lost out in the final last year to TP Mazembe, a fate that also befell them in 1999 and 2000. Beyond that, they reached the last-eight group stage twice more in the last decade, and this is their fifth time in semi-finals in that same period. It’s enough to make the Tunisians feel jinxed, but under the steady hand of coach Nabil Maaloul and propelled by a wicked attack, the Blood and Gold are favourites to reach the ultimate match again after beating Sudan’s Al Hilal in the first leg 1-0.

Young Tunisian international Youssef Msakni was the hero in that match, netting the vital away goal, and with the possible return of previously injured captain Oussama Darragi, the hosts are confident of adding to their aggregate score. That would leave the ambitious Sudanese the task of finding at least a pair of goals in Tunis, certainly a tall task for any team, although the match will be played behind closed doors. Al Hilal, who lost in the final match of this competition in 1987 and 1992, are frantic to avoid going out at this stage of the competition for the third time in five years, and Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic has already been a casualty of the first leg defeat, being replaced by interim boss Al-Fateh Al-Nager for the contest. For his part, the previous Khartoum coach said this week that he believes his players can stun the hosts by overturning their deficit and qualifying for the final.

Enyimba try to stop slide
In the other showdown, Nigeria’s Enyimba will try to keep their hopes of a third continental crown alive by overturning a 1-0 defeat from the first leg at Wydad. It was a defensive performance by the People’s Elephant, who were previously unbeaten in 11 matches in the event, and they are expected to attack fiercely at the Enyimba International Stadium in Aba. However, the side that has proven themselves adept at holding other sides down defensively must be wary of giving up an away goal that would force them to score three against the wily Red and Whites.

Enyimba, who reached this stage of the competition in 2008, might also be showing their nerves of late after losing four consecutive matches, one of which was a domestic cup final and two in the league that ended their Nigerian Premier League challenge. The positive news is that experienced strikers Junior Osagie and Victor Barnabas will be back after injury layoffs for the hosts, who will also call on 25-year-old dangerman Uche Kalu to test the Moroccan's defence. Enyimba are also expecting first-choice goalkeeper Chijoke Ejiogu to return to the team after an ankle injury that saw him lose his place to impressive deputy Paul Godwin, who prevented Wydad from running up a higher score in the first leg. In fact, Michel Decastel’s men had to wait until the final minute for Benin international Pascal Angan to head them in front in Casablanca.

Wydad have a promising away record in the Champions League this year that should bolster their hopes of reaching a second-ever final. They have already claimed away draws at Esperance, Egyptian giants Al Ahly and Nigeria’s other entrant in the event Kano Pillars this year. They also have started well in the new Moroccan Botola season, and they lead in the early going with a perfect three wins from three matches with no goals conceded, including a 1-0 win this week over namesakes Wydad Fez. They have chartered a plane for the trip and will fly into Port Harcourt in order to get to the south-eastern city of Aba for Sunday’s match with the most ease.

The final will be a two-legged affair in November, and all four sides are driven to win in order to qualify for their first FIFA Club World Cup, which takes place in Japan in December.