Africa's finest get down to business

The final group stage of the CAF Champions League 2011 will get underway this weekend with eight teams looking to inherit the title of Africa’s top club from TP Mazembe.

Odds-on favourites have to be Egypt’s Al Ahly, who have won the tournament six times and been runners-up twice, although their last appearance in the top four was back in 2008. They start their Group B campaign on Sunday against the 1992 champions, Wydad Casablanca of Morocco.

The first Group B match tomorrow also looks enticing, with Algeria’s MC Alger taking on Tunisia Ligue 1 title-holders Esperance ST. Scheduled for the same day, Group A’s opener between three-time CAF champions Raja Casablanca and Cameroonian contenders Coton Sport is sure to attract attention, while the group’s second game, which sees Sudan’s Al Hilal take on Nigerians Enyimba, looks to be no less exciting.

Blast from the pastThe weekend’s Group A confrontations will certainly evoke memories for the teams involved. Raja Casablanca and Coton Sport met in the final of the 2003 CAF Cup with the Moroccans winning 2-0 on aggregate, while Enyimba and Al Hilal are no strangers to each other, having competed in Group B of the CAF Champions League 2008.

Raja Casablanca will go into their first match in high spirits, bolstered by memories of their 2003 final victory and their Morocco league title, which they claimed back in April of this year, while the recent arrival of Romanian coach Ilie Balaci will have lifted their confidence still further.

The Al Hilal-Enyimba fixture looks especially hard to call. At the group stage in 2008 Al Hilal beat the Nigerians 3-2 in Sudan but were on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline in the return leg. The game will be especially significant for Al Hilal’s Nigerian defender Yousef Mohamed, who won the championship with Enyimba in 2003 and is one of the stand-out talents of Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic’s side.

In the opposing dugout will be coach Felix Okey Emordi, whose strategy is sure to depend greatly on star striker Victor Barnabas. In only sixth months at Enyimba, Barnabas has netted ten goals in the Nigerian league and three in the current Champions League campaign.

Emordi feels it will be difficult game for both sides. “Any team that has got this far will be tough,” he said. “I expect it won’t be easy for either team on Sunday. Our fundamental problem is that, at the moment, we don’t have enough information about our opponents.”

Tough drawOne thing almost everyone agrees on is that Group B is the hardest section. All four teams have been continental champions at least once, meaning the battle to claim the two semi-final berths on offer is sure to be fierce.

Tomorrow, the most decorated African club of them all, Al Ahly, will host Wydad Casablanca in Cairo, though due to a sanction handed down by CAF, the Egyptian giants will have to play without the support of their vast and devoted fan following.

For one, Al Ahly coach Manuel Jose is expecting a difficult opening tie. “We’ll be playing without the fans’ support, and they’re the team’s 12th man,” the Portuguese said.

Having steered the Red Devils to four of their six Champions League titles in addition to third place at the FIFA Club World Cup in 2006, Jose knows exactly what his team can expect: “Competing in the Champions League is nothing like the local championship. Our main goal has to be making it into the final four, and we can’t allow ourselves to get side-tracked.”

His counterpart at Wydad Casablanca, Swiss strategist Michel Decastel, has experience of Egyptian football himself having previously coached Al Zamalek, and will be hoping the absence of Al Ahly supporters will compensate for the loss of defender Abderrahmane Mssassi and midfielder Younes Mankari.

Turning to the group’s Saturday game, Algeria’s MC Alger will be taking on Tunisian champions Esperance ST, who will be hoping to extend their fine form into the tournament and add a second Champions League title to that of 1994. Esperance travelled to Algeria five days prior to the game to begin preparations in earnest, and coach Nabil Maaloul remains confident that his side will prevail.

As it happens, morale in their opponent’s could hardly be lower. MC Alger only narrowly avoided relegation this year and start the final group phase without a coach, following the resignation of Noureddine Zekri. Though nothing is ever certain in football, it would be a major surprise if the 1976 champions could reprise past glories and go all the way again this year.