CAF Confederation Cup giantkillers Black Leopards of South Africa and AC Leopards of Congo Brazzaville suffered narrow first-leg away losses this weekend in the play-offs for group stage places. Black Leopards snatched a couple of late goals in a sauna-like Omdurman during their 3-2 defeat to 2007 runners-up Al Merreikh of Sudan, while ten-man AC Leopards restricted title holders Moghreb Fes to a 1-0 victory in Morocco.
The South Africans trailed 1-0 at half-time after squandering several scoring chances and appeared in trouble when Ahmed El Basha bagged an early second-half brace for a Sudanese side coached by Brazilian Ricardo Ferreira.
A lack of fitness - after only two weeks of pre-season training - told against the team from the northern city of Polokwane as the game wore on, but they stung the home team through goals from skipper Mongezi Bobe and David Zulu.Having overcome a two-goal first-leg deficit against Warri Wolves of Nigeria in the previous qualifying round, Black Leopards will be hopeful of overturning the deficit on 15 July before their supporters.
Midfielder Tiyani Mabunda certainly thinks so: "The boys need to work on their match fitness, but we have gone too far in this competition to be eliminated now." Black Leopards just avoided relegation from the South African Premiership last season and have exceeded expectations on their continental debut with wins over Motor Action of Zimbabwe, Lupopo of Democratic Republic of Congo and Wolves.
AC Leopards, from the western Congolese city of Dolisie, caused the biggest shock of the Confederation Cup this season by knocking out CS Sfaxien of Tunisia, the only club to win the second-tier CAF competition twice. They also eliminated Heartland of Nigeria and the slender margin of defeat in Fes offers hope of more glory, especially as they had to play almost the whole second half a man short after Nzamba Mombo was red carded.
Mombo get his marching orders on 50 minutes and Hamza Abourazzouk scored the winner 60 seconds later for Moghreb, who pipped Club Africain of Tunisia in a penalty shootout last December to lift the trophy.
Other Moroccan challengers had mixed luck with Wydad Casablanca snatching a 1-0 win over AFAD Djekanou in the Ivory Coast while COD Meknes slumped 3-0 away to 2009 winners Stade Malien in Mali.
Yassine Lakhal scored on 35 minutes for 2011 CAF Champions League runners-up Wydad while goals from Lamine Diawara, Moussa Coulibaly and Ousmane Cisse gave Stade a lead that should ensure they reach the last-eight group phase.