The quarter-finals of the CAF and AFC Champions Leagues are upon us, and a number of Arab clubs have made it through, hoping to get back to the glory days that have eluded them for the past 12 months in Africa and four years in Asia.
Arab supporters will have five teams to cheer on in Africa and three in Asia once the competition starts up again after a break for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Five Arab clubs are through to the quarter-finals in Africa: Al Ahly and Al Ismaily from Egypt, Esperance Sportive de Tunis (Tunisia) and Entente de Setif and Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie from Algeria. They are spread evenly with two in group A and three in group B, and all of them stand a good chance of making it through to the final four.
Al Ahly from the Egyptian capital of Cairo are the continent's most successful club in terms of trophies. They made it through to the final on three of the last four occasions and won the title six times, four of those coming in the past ten years. Last season they fell in the first round however, to the chagrin of their many fans, and this prompted them to have a clear-out. There are now plenty of new faces among the backroom staff, and talented youngsters have been brought in to add to the various Egyptian internationals already in the squad.
Ahly on fire
This strategy has paid dividends with Al Ahly winning the domestic league at a canter, comfortably securing the title before the end of the season. Their squad is more or less ready for their continental campaign, though they may well choose to further bolster their attacking options.
The second Egyptian club involved in the CAF Champions League are Al Ismaily. They have developed an attacking brand of football which draws favourable comparisons with Brazil and which has put them back amongst the best in the continent. They will also be determined not to let their rivals from the capital steal all the glory.
The Daraweesh won their only continental championship back in 1969 and also reached the final in 2003, going down to Enyimba from Nigeria 2-1 over two legs. Tough to beat at home and capable of springing a few surprises away, the tournament dark horses may need to pick up some more experienced heads if they are to mount a sustained challenge.
Revival for Esperance
Esperance Sportive de Tunis are also back with a vengeance after a barren few years on the domestic front kept them away from the CAF Champions League – a title which they won back in 1994. They will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow Tunisians Etoile du Sahel, who won the trophy in 2007. Esperance have a team packed with technically gifted players who have propelled them to the Tunisian league title for the past two seasons and look ready to make the step up to the continental stage.
Entente de Setif are also back among the African elite at last, thanks in no small part to their fervent home support. They were knocked out of the CAF Champions League at any early stage two years ago but are now determined to reclaim a trophy which they last won back in 1988.
Their fans are also looking for some silverware to cheer about after the team came so close to winning the CAF Confederations Cup only to lose to Stade Malien in the final. Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie, also from Algeria, have twice won the tournament, in 1981 and 1990, to add to the three Confederations Cups which they have to their name, putting them among the favourites this year.
In Asia there are three Arab clubs still in contention: Al Hilal and Al Shabab from Saudi Arabia and Al Gharafa from Qatar. They have three teams from Korea Republic, one from Japan and one from Iran vying with them for the title of AFC Champions, and though the draw for the quarter-finals has yet to take place, these three giants of Arab football will be confident of putting an end to four years in the wilderness on the continental stage.
Al Hilal are reigning Saudi champions and have an enticing mix of local talent and stars from abroad to go all way to the title, which is indeed what the Chiefs, as their fans call them, did in 1992 and 2000 when the competition was known as the Asian Club Championship. The Riyadh-based outfit, who have experienced Belgian boss Eric Gerets at the helm, are hoping for their first silverware in the tournament's new format, having won their group at a canter before cruising past Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan 3-0 in the Round of 16.
Shabab keen to impress
The second Saudi team involved, Al Shabab, lost in the quarter-finals last year and are looking to make it to the final four for the first time in the club's history. They have plenty of experienced names in their team, and have the kind of squad at their disposal which should see them go far.
Al Gharafa, who won the Qatar league title last season, will also fancy their chances. Though this is the first time that they have made it through to the last eight in four attempts, the star-studded team will be brimming with confidence after topping their group and then defeating perennial AFC Champions League stalwarts Pakhtakor Tashkent in the round of 16.
All eight Arab clubs will also be doubly motivated to win their Champions Leagues this time around, given that the next edition of the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup is being held later this year in the United Arab Emirates.