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2014 CAF Champions League: Group stage preview
The CAF Champions League’s business end kicks off this weekend. 2014 should offer lots of excitement, from plenty of pedigree – with seven former finalists – to local rivalries being settled in the DRC and in Tunisia just scratching the surface.
Here’s a preview of the two groups:
This group consists of DRC’s duo TP Mazembe and AS Vita Club, Sudanese giants Al Hilal and Egypt’s sole remaining representative Zamalek.
Of the four, only Zamalek reached this stage last year and they will hope to gain from whatever advantage that brings. They will be happy to go back to the pre-2006 days as they are the most successful club in this context. Zamalek have really not impressed since reaching the semi-final in the last of those days in 2005. Just three group stage appearances since then, all ending in failure to reach the semi-final. Their league form has been erratic and while their group rivals have secured continental shots for next season, they still hang in there. It will be interesting to see how Mido handles two of his opponents who are, at least on paper, superior to Zamalek. From their defeats to the stronger teams in their half of the league – Petrojet and Ismailiy – this should make for an interesting subplot. It should be noted Zamalek fell short the last time they met these two teams; TP Mazembe (2012) and Al Hilal (2007).
Not all gloomy though for the White Knights, stuttering league form aside they boast the best defensive record in the competition and they are yet to lose. They are also the only team in this group to have won on the road. Zamalek’s refreshed team with the likes of Momen Zakaria, Mohamed Ibrahim and Ahmed Ali will hope the trophy drought ending Egyptian cup triumph is a mark of the resurgence of Africa’s number two club. There is also the small issue of ending their long wait for a continental triumph akin to Real Madrid, their mirror club.
Al Hilal returns to the group stage after a three-year absence hoping to finally shed off the tag of being the best team never to have won the Champions League. Twice runners-up and thrice semi-finalists, the Khartoum-based side never seems to have the final steel. A different theme this time though will be the fact that a Sudanese will be the star of the team-in quite a long time. Forward Muhannad El Tahir. They will be the most confident team in this group having arrived unbeaten against tougher opponents in Stade Malien and AC Leopards.
After overcoming Vita Club in the winner takes all league decider, TP Mazembe’s next mission is to regain its status as Africa’s top club. An exciting foreign attacking trio of Solomon Asante-Mbwana Samata-Reinford Kalaba that has been in the works under coach Carteron and their unbeaten record at home since moving to their new stadium will be their edge over the group opposition. Their poor record away in North Africa and a team still largely in rebuilding mode mean this group might be closer than most think.
The other DRC team of this group will be on the other end of the spectrum on the favourites scale. Underrate teams at your own peril so the cliché goes. You would be forgiven though; despite being DRC’s most supported club, AS Vita Club have been overshadowed by Mazembe’s money and continental success. No slouches, they have one of the most intimidating home crowd and have been continental champions and runners up before. Making a first group stage is already a success but chasing Mazembe till the last day for league glory and knocking out the champions of Nigeria and South Africa shows they are here for a fight. It will still be a tall order against the experienced trio but rivalry with Mazembe should add spice and possibly play a huge role on who reaches the semi finals.
My predictions: TP Mazembe and Zamalek
Nothing offers excitement in the CAF Champions League like a showdown between North African teams. Well, in this group every match will be a North African derby. The featuring sides are: Esperance Tunis and CS Sfaxien-both from Tunisia, Ahli Benghazi from Libya and Entente Setif from Algeria.
Esperance Tunis head into the group stage with lots of momentum. Unbeaten in 2014, 26th league title wrapped up and set to become the first team ever to make a fifth consecutive CAF Champions League group stage appearance. The previous four have read from the same script. First place finishes and semi-final spot guaranteed with a game to spare. Taraji are arguably the competition’s standout favourites. They still boast the most complete side in Africa, only this time more balanced thanks to the absence of the poster boy role played by Youssef Msakni and by Youcef Belaili last year. Not forgetting the tutelage of one of the most successful African club coach Ruud Krol. They should navigate comfortably even in the face of a classico showdown with Sfaxien.
If Taraji are assured of a routine passage to the last four, then CS Sfaxien are the best bet for a first final involving two clubs from the same country. The hard-fighting “Juventus al Arab” enjoyed massive success last year with a league and confederations cup win. It’s only natural the next stage be a, long overdue, Champions League triumph. Krol’s departure forced some change in organisation from 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-2-1 but the cog of that team remains strong. There is big game player Ben Youssef – who has scored in every Champions League match this season – and in the CAF Super Cup-midfield duo Ferjani Sassi and Ibrahima Ndong’, target man Idrissa Kouyate, goalkeeper Rami Jridi and captain/left back Ali Maaloul. They also have a 100% record so far in this year’s campaign. Whispers of Sfaxien being dubbed Africa’s number 2 club may just change one better if they go one better than when they were last in this tournament – that memorable 2006 final.
Algerian outfit ES Setif have become regulars in of the CAF tournaments but they’ve always flattered to deceive. Their last appearance in the group stage was in 2010 when they failed to step up to their tag as a top dog. Nonetheless they will hope for a more fruitful campaign this year. Despite choking in the Confederations Cup last year and surrendering the league to USM Alger, they will hope their recent string of good results and being unbeaten plus yet to concede counts for something when they open their campaign away to Esperance.
Ahli Benghazi will be the rookie team that took out the reigning champions. They will be rookies only in name. Led by the experienced strike force of Sadomba – one time the most expensive transfer within Africa and four goals already – and renowned Libyan Ahmed Zuway, they certainly will be a force to reckon with. They will contemplate moving to a new home away from home as Tunisia cannot work out for obvious reasons. Whichever side of the coin they pick, this could hamper their bid. Can they outdo Al Ittihad 2007? The answers start trickling in this weekend.
My predictions: Esperance Tunis and CS Sfaxien
Condolences to the families of the fans who died in the stampede during the AS Vita vs. TP Mazembe match.