The CAF Champions League is a competition which, rather unfortunately, receives very little coverage in Europe, but the overall standard of Africa’s top club competition has been steadily improving over the course of the last few seasons. With the first legs of the semi-finals kicking-off on Sunday, we take a look at the form of the four remaining teams and assess their respective chances.
Al-Ahly (Egypt) v. Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Tunisia)
The first semi-final sees two of North Africa’s biggest clubs go head-to-head as Al-Ahly, Egypt’s most dominant and popular team, take on reigning Tunisian champions Espérance. The pair have historically monopolised their domestic leagues with thirty-five and twenty-three titles respectively, Al-Ahly also being the most successful team in continental competition with six Champions League triumphs.
Despite all their success, Al-Ahly were unusually poor during the group stage, only scraping through to the last four with eight points from six games and losing twice along the way – once to JS Kabylie and once to fellow Egyptian side Ismaily. If they are to overcome Espérance – who were far more impressive in the early stages – then Hossam El-Badry will need to seriously improve the level of his team’s performances.
When at their best Al-Ahly are a superb passing side who play in a similar mould to the Egyptian national team, willing to get forward regularly and quick and precise in their movement of the ball. Star players such as Hossam Ghaly, Mohamed Gedo and Mohamed Aboutrika give the team offensive impetus and extra quality in the attacking third, a quality that the majority of other teams in the competition are unable to call upon. Whether or not they can use it to their advantage in the semi-final is another question.
As I briefly touched on above, Espérance enjoyed an impressive run of form during the first round which saw them top Group A with thirteen points. The tournament’s top scorers thus far, Nigerian international striker Michael Eneramo and native attacking midfielder Oussama Darragi were particularly impressive during the latter group ties, each scoring three goals.
Faouzi Benzarti will be confident that his team has enough to overcome the challenge of an uncharacteristically weak Al-Ahly outfit, although concerns over their defensive prowess have crept in of late. Shipping two goals against Algerian side ES Sétif in the penultimate group game was uncharacteristic and is something Espérance can ill-afford to repeat.
If Al-Ahly can rediscover the consistency for which they are famed and start to pull in the right direction, then the Egyptians might well progress to the final with ease. However, such has been Espérance’s excellence this year, particularly going forward, the tie is almost impossible to call.
TP Mazembe (DR Congo) v. JS Kabylie (Algeria)
Arguably the more attractive prospect, JS Kabylie’s trip to TP Mazembe represents a clash between two of Africa’s historically most successful teams. With twenty-four domestic titles and five Champions League’s between them, the two legs of this tie could well provide some fascinating story lines.
JS Kabylie were very much the form side during the group stages, winning Group B by a six-point margin with four victories and two draws from their six games. Swiss manager Alain Geiger has got his team playing a patient and pragmatic possession game, relying on an excellent defence to invariably see Kabylie edge out their opposition.
Indeed, the Algerians conceded just two goals in the group, the four games they won all finishing with 1-0 score lines. Although they are almost watertight at the back, Kabylie do lack an out-and-out goalscorer, often relying on an assortment of their dynamic midfield players to provide the goals.
TP Mazembe, in contrast, are one of the competition’s most vibrantly attacking outfits, Lamine N’Diaye’s team having scored eight goals (the joint second-highest total) during the group phase. In the form of Given Singuluma and Trésor Mputu, Mazembe can boast what is quite probably the tournament’s most potent strike partnership and should prove a stern test for their opponents’ heralded defence.
However, for all of their style going forward, Mazembe have been known to be a little lax at the back. The concession of seven goals in the group (including a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Espérance) will have been something of a concern to N’Diaye and, should they wish to make the final, something that will have to be improved upon in the face of Kabylie’s often efficient counter-attacking.
This should be a fascinating tie between two stylistically opposed teams and, if both sides play to their potential, it could be the clash of the tournament. Expect a thrilling contest in Lubumbashi on Sunday.