Historical roles are reversed this weekend in the group stage of the CAF Champions League as Egyptian giants Al Ahly are looking for a victory to reverse a three-point deficit to Zambia's Zesco United. The eight-time champions and 13-time semi-finalists have already lost in Ndola to the club whose previous best performance in the competition is making it through to the group phase in 2009.
Not surprisingly, Zesco players are confident of a place in the semi-finals even though they'll be playing their fifth match of the round away in Alexandria. “The main thing is just to reach the next round. Morale is high and we have played them before, so we know their weaknesses and strengths,” captain Jacob Banda said ahead of their departure to Egypt.
Al Ahly and Zesco's preparations for the match could not have been different, with Ahly losing the Egyptian Cup final earlier in the week against bitter rivals Zamalek 3-1 and having Hossam Ghaly and Ahmed Fathi ejected, while Zesco have not played since their 1-1 draw at ASEC Mimosas at the end of last month. “That inactivity is an advantage for us because we have plenty of energy,” Banda said.
Zesco coach George Lwandamina will be without midfielder Mwape Mwelwa, who is suspended after picking up a second booking during the draw in Côte d’Ivoire. However, he can call on midfielder Misheck Chaila, who missed the trip to west Africa through suspension. Also available is Zesco's top scorer Idris Mbombo, who did not play in the first leg between the two sides due to an injury. The Congo DR striker has scored five goals in the competition so far this season.
With two group games remaining, Ahly are on four points, even with ASEC. Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca are even with Zesco on seven points, but ahead on goal difference. Wydad go into their home match on Sunday against ASEC on the back of a morale-boosting victory in the regional Tabuk International Tournament in Saudi Arabia, with Congolese striker Fabrice Nguessi scoring the winner in the final against El Entag El Harby.
A win for the home side would all but guarantee their place in the semi-finals.
Last roll of dice for Enyimba
In Group B, Mamelodi Sundowns have the luxury of sitting back comfortably and watching the action from afar as Zamalek and Enyimba go head-to-head in Cairo on Sunday. The South African champions are already assured of winning the group ahead of their final game against Nigerian side Enyimba, but for the Peoples' Elephant the match in Egypt offers a last roll of the dice.
Anything but victory will see the two-time champions, who have yet to get a point after two matches, eliminated from the competition. Sundowns top the group with nine points from three matches, while Zamalek have three points from their three games. The group was reduced to three after former champions ES Setif were disqualified from the competition following crowd trouble.
Enyimba players though, still believe they have a chance of qualifying, despite having to win both matches. "Our chances are still bright. We are playing very well, but maybe we need a little bit of luck because the goals aren't coming as we would have wished.
"Though we haven't earned a point yet, we know that a win in Egypt and in Nigeria will do us a lot of good. We shall give our best to achieve this goal,” said forward Joseph Osadiaye.
Zamalek though, will be on a high after winning their fourth consecutive Egyptian Cup earlier in the week with Bassem Morsi scoring twice and Mostafa Fathi grabbing the other. The White Knights' are now coached by Moemen Soliman, who at the moment has the job on an interim basis and was only appointed at the end of July. He was a surprise choice for a club that has generally gone for high-profile coaches. "I only took charge of Zamalek two weeks ago, and I was worried the players would not recognise me when I led the first training session. I also once forgot the club's entry card and I thought the security personnel would not even know who I am,” he told journalists.
After beating Al Ahly, he told his players not to get too complacent with the cup victory. “We have another job to do. We are turning our attention to the Champions League, and we have many things ahead of us,” he said.
Although only Al Ahly have won the competition more often than Zamalek, the White Knights have not won the event since 2002, in which time the Red Devils have added five African titles to their CV's. A draw on Sunday would see them qualify for the semi-finals.