Semi-finals set to enthral Africa

The first legs of the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League take place this weekend and pitch together four previous winners of the competition, the biggest in African club football. Among them are reigning champions TP Mazembe, who have mounted a sterling defence of their title.

The Congolese outfit are the only non-north African side to make it through to the last four, which for the first time since 2007 does not feature a Nigerian team.

Stern examination for the holdersTP Mazembe will face their first major test of the competition when they host Algeria’s JS Kabylie. Les Canaris, who have yet to lose in this year’s Champions League and have won all their home games, have been preparing diligently for the showdown, arriving in Lubumbashi four days before the game. The side from the Algerian city of Tizi-Ouzou beat AS Khroub 3-2 in their opening league match of the season last Saturday, a result that did not entirely please their Swiss coach Alain Geiger, who is anxious for them to up their game against the Congolese champions.

“We can’t afford to make the mistakes we made in the league,” said the 49-year-old Geiger. “We need to address them, and although we can’t compare league games to the Champions League, we won’t be making those mistakes against TP Mazembe. We are expecting a difficult game but we’re hopeful of doing our best. Mazembe are the holders and a good side, and I think Sunday’s game will see plenty of attacking football. I have faith in my players, though, and in the plan we’ve put in place to take another step closer to the title.”

As for The Crows, their aim will be to build up a significant cushion for the second leg in a fortnight’s time. Part of the responsibility for doing just that will fall to their Zambian striker Given Singuluma, one of four joint-top scorers in the competition with three goals so far. Congolese midfielder Dioko Kaluyituka has chipped in with two goals to date.

Al Ahly and Esperance reunitedIn the other semi-final, Egyptian giants Al Ahly take on Esperance Sportive de Tunis. The Cairo club are the most successful club in the competition’s history, having won the trophy six times, with four of those titles coming in the last ten years. The Tunisians, meanwhile, have a solitary triumph in 1994 to their name.

The two clubs met in the group phase in 2007, the Egyptians winning 3-0 in Cairo and going down 1-0 in Tunis en route to the final, where they lost to another Tunisian side in Etoile Sportive du Sahel.

The men from the Egyptian capital go into the game weakened by the absence of midfielder Ahmed Hassan through injury and Hossam Ghali through suspension, giving coach Hossam El Badry plenty of cause for concern. “Both sides are going to play a cautious game and we definitely fear each other," he said. "You can never protect against injuries and it’s something we came up against last season. Even so, it didn’t affect the team’s performances.”

While El Badry ponders his reduced attacking options, his opposite number Faouzi Benzarti can count on the services of Nigerian frontman Michael Eneramo and Tunisian international Oussama Darragi, both of whom hit three goals in the opening rounds. A goal from either of them in Cairo would be valuable, although Benzarti is mindful of the threat the six-time champions pose. “Al Ahly are Egypt’s biggest club," he said. "They’re not at their best at the moment but you always have to be wary of them. They have some experienced players who are very comfortable on the ball.”

The Esperance boss also believes Sunday’s game is more important than the return leg. “We need to go to Cairo and look for our place in the final. We have to forget about the second leg and focus solely on the next game. That’s the key to going through.”

This weekend’s fixtures*Sunday 3 October 2010 *TP Mazembe-JS Kabylie, Stade de la Kenya, Lubumbashi, 15.30 (local time) Al Ahly-Esperance ST, Cairo Stadium, Cairo, 19.30 (local time)