CAF Champions League debutants Berekum Chelsea knew they were in the “Group of Death’ when they were pitted against Al Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt and TP Mazembe Englebert of Congo DR – a trio with 15 titles between them. But with four points from their first three matches, and two home games to come, the Blues are well positioned to upset the form book and advance.
Their veteran Dutch coach Hans van der Pluijm, who first worked in Africa some 14 years ago, has played a big part in helping the young team step up to the continental level. The coach who gave Ruud van Nistelrooy his debut aged 17, and now possesses one of the hottest properties in Africa in top scorer Emmanuel Clottey, says that discipline and self-belief will be vital in a big match against Ahly next weekend.
FIFA.com: Half-way through the group stage, how do you assess your performance?
Hans van der Pluijm: First, the fact that we have reached the league phase is a fantastic achievement. And then the way we played in the first two matches, coming from two goals behind to beat Zamalek 3-2 and then 2-0 down at half-time and fighting back to 2-2 against TP Mazembe, speaks to the quality of the side. Last week we travelled to Al Ahly and lost 4-1, and I must say for all of us, it was very disappointing because we were up against a team missing three players in London at the Olympics, and also without the advantage of playing in front of their fans because the game was played behind closed doors. In principle, I counted on a minimum of one point, but very unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
You play Al Ahly again next, but this time at home. Can you turn it around?
I know it will be very difficult, but when you play at home you have to make the game. Against a team with the tactical discipline of Al Ahly, with so much experience in African football, you have to also be very tactically disciplined. If we can do that then I think we have a chance to take all three points. We created scoring opportunities against Ahly in the first 10 minutes of both halves but we gave goals away too cheaply.
Is it still possible to reach the last four?
That’s our wish and our dream. In football, anything and everything can happen, and it’s very difficult to look into the future and predict. But we’ll do everything possible to get that place.
How do you deal with the inexperience of your young players in a big competition?
With a young team like Chelsea, it’s important that we play tight. When you play against these kinds of teams and you make a small mistake, they punish you. That’s the principle of discipline we need. I also think that when you work with a young team, you have to try and give them as much confidence as you can and a feeling they can do it.
Are you the surprise package of this competition so far?
We beat Raja Casablanca 5-0 at home, which was a very surprising result – including for me. But it said something about the quality of our team. We lost away 3-0 in the second leg but that is when you saw clearly the void in our experience. That was a lesson for the other matches. Then, no one gave us any chance against Coton Sport after we drew the first leg, but I told everybody that they had come for a draw. They played a very defensive game. I knew they’d open up at home, and I knew with a striker like Clottey we would have so many possibilities to score. We gave the players confidence they could do it and that’s why we won 2-1 away to qualify. When the draw was made and we saw the clubs we had to play, everybody thought that would be the death for us. Of course it is a very difficult group, but we picked out the good things and we worked on our shortcomings and hopefully we can surprise Al Ahly in Ghana.
Clottey is the top scorer in the Champions League and an object of desire for many other clubs. Can you maintain your team the rest of the competition?
It is natural in Ghanaian football that club owners hope that one day they can sell one or two players to recoup their investment. That is the aim of most of the Ghanaian teams, to get money to run the club and invest in other departments. Clottey will be a player who will go after the Champions League, but we are looking for replacements who will help us to put in a strong bid for the Ghana Premier League title this coming season.
Are there any rising Ghanaian stars?
There are always young players coming through in Ghana. It’s very important how you manage the players. If you treat them well and let them believe in themselves and keep their minds away from the pollution and premature praise that comes from media and agents, then you can have success. Given time and the right direction, many young players can come through.