After a pair of away draws in the first leg of the CAF Champions League semi-final, the North African duo of Esperance and Al Ahly have the edge in the returns this weekend in the continent’s biggest club competition. However, both have much work to do, particularly holders Esperance, who face TP Mazembe with no away goals for protection after a scoreless draw in Lubumbashi. Record six-time champions of the event, Ahly managed a 3-3 draw in Ijebu Ode, Nigeria against Sunshine Stars a fortnight ago, and will be hoping for far fewer fireworks against the debutantes behind closed doors in the Cairo suburbs.
The winners of the two ties advance to November’s two-legged, home-and-away final, and the victor will be crowned king of Africa and qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this December.
Match of the week
Esperance – TP Mazembe
The two best teams in Africa over the last four seasons come together on Saturday with something to prove after a tense first leg saw the Tunisians wrest a slight advantage in the tie. The 0-0 score was a heartening result for the Blood and Gold, particularly given that they lost in the corresponding fixture in the 2010 final 5-0. Despite a few stutters in the home leg, the Congolese are known for their potent and pacy attack and an away goal could change the complexion of the tie quickly.
Both sides have lots of experience at this level with the hosts alone having reached the semi-final stage of the competition seven times in the last 13 years. Their veteran coach Nabil Maaloul reflected a thoughtful attitude, saying: “Nothing is decided yet. It's 50-50. [The first leg] result was a trap because we both have to remain vigilant and focused in the second leg.” The manager will have back Ghanaian Harrison Afful, who scored the winner in last year’s final, but he might have bigger issues if playmaker Youssef Msakni is not fit. Likewise, Mazembe will be without suspended defender Stoppila Sunzu and could miss the injured Zambian pair of Rainford Kalaba and Hichani Himonde.
It has been a trying time for Al Ahly as they attempt to maintain their Champions League form without any local football to fall back upon. With league and domestic cup duties cancelled since February and the re-start date pushed back again recently, continental success has been the sole focus for the Egyptian giants. And barring any incredible happenings, a draw on Sunday in the brand new 30 June Stadium would be enough to see them through to their ninth final.
However, surprise semi-finalists Sunshine Stars have proven themselves capable of matching Africa’s best. Not only did they come back from a 4-1 first leg defeat to beat Angola’s Recreativo do Libolo on away goals in the first round, but they recorded an impressive away win in Algeria at ASO Chlef in the group stage. They showed determination in the first leg by fighting back multiple times until Precious Osasco's dramatic free-kick in the dying minutes finalised the draw. Al Ahly’s goals came from Mohamed ‘Gedo’ Nagy’s brace and El-Sayed Hamdi, both usually replacements, but manager Hossam El Badry should be able to call on first choice striker Emad Meteab, who is returning from an operation. Wael Gomaa should also be available after an injury scare, but midfielder midfielder Walid Soliman is a question mark and left-back Sayed Moawad has been ruled out. The Nigerians should welcome back previously suspended captain Godfrey Oboabona, but will likely be missing first-choice goalkeeper Moses Ocheje.
Player to watch
With strikers Oussou Konan, Dominique Da Silva and Emad Meteab all struggling to reach fitness after injuries, Al Ahly’s attacking focus could once again fall on the man known as Gedo. The 2010 AFCON hero has typically acted as a super-sub for both club and country, but he proved once again a fortnight ago to be a fine finisher at any time of the match.
The stat 3 –The number of clubs to have won back-to-back CAF Champions Leagues, as Esperance are trying to do. Mazembe has done it twice, Ahly and Enyimba of Nigeria once.
What they said
“I expect them to attack from the start as a draw is not in their favour, so we'll focus on our defence but try to score early and put the game beyond them,” Al Ahly coach Hossam El Badry.
Have your say
Can Mazembe score the goals they need in Tunis this weekend?