Africa: Zamalek, Zesco Hope for Home Joy

In the 19 years since Africa’s premier cup competition introduced a group phase, just three times have southern African teams have made it through to the final. A fourth will definitely follow this year, as the CAF Champions League semi-finals has pitted the two North African and the two southern African clubs remaining in the competition against each other.

Cairo giants Zamalek get the ball rolling in Alexandria as they take on Moroccan rivals Wydad Casablanca on Friday, while current South African champions Sundowns make the short trip to Ndola for their match against Zambian club Zesco United a day later.

Zamalek, who have won the competition second-most of any club with five trophies, surprisingly finished second in their group behind Sundowns, to set up the match against Wydad, who is coached by Liverpool playing legend and long-time coach John Toshack. The Welshman has managed Wales and Real Madrid among many others, and he told media this week that his run in Africa has been a success for him thus far.

“To be honest, if we can win [the Champions League], for various reasons, it would have to go down as one of the most successful periods of my career. There have just been so many things we have had to adapt to,” he said before turning to his potential future plans. “If things go wrong here, like they could easily do, I’m not sure I would have the patience again to turn things around. We’ll see how we do in these semi-finals and then that would be a good time to sit down and take stock”

His Zamalek counterpart, Moemen Soliman, only had his interim position turned into a permanent one less than a month ago. But since taking over from Mohamed Helmy, Soliman has taken the White Knights not only to the semi-finals of the Champions League but has also added the Egyptian cup to the club’s trophy cabinet.

He will, however, have to take on Wydad without a natural left-back as Ali Fathi is injured, whilst Mohamed Adel Gomaa and Hamada Tolba both left the club. The White Knights took a chance when they added just one left-back to their Champions League squad and Fathi’s injury has left them scrambling.

Wydad players are well-aware that the game will not be an easy one, with youngster Reda Hajhouj, who has scored six goals for his club in the competition, describing it as “like a final.”

“I would rather we had avoided Zamalek at this stage, so that there could be two Arab teams in the final. Everyone knows that finals between Arab clubs are exciting and entertaining. But this semi-final will feel like a final.”

Sundowns get another sunrise

But while an all-North African final has been a regular occurrence in the competition, an all-southern African one would have been historic. Having missed out on the opportunity is not something that worries Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane. “At this stage of the competition you take what you get.

“All the teams in the semi-finals are there because they deserve to be there. There are certainly no weak teams and we will have to be at our best to overcome Zesco United.”

Mosimane says that his team will fear no side though after already being eliminated from the competition once – their away goal defeat to AS Vita Club was overturned by CAF – and making their way through a tough group stage. “Just look at the group in which we found ourselves. You had Zamalek, with their five wins, while ES Setif and Enyimba have each won the competition twice. We were the underdogs. We were supposed to be the whipping boys, but then suddenly we won the group with a game to spare.”

Mosimane will have to take on the Zambians without Colombian striker Leonardo Castro, who picked up an injury in a league game. “We have had a lot of players not available, with some joining other clubs since we registered them. But I am confident that we will put on a strong showing.”

Former Zambian international Clifford Mulenga, who played for Zesco, believes that his former club can prevail at the end of the two-legged tie. “They have brought in very good quality players who will give Sundowns a good run for their money.

“Zesco still have more experience playing on the continent than Sundowns, and almost all the players are national team players so that gives them an edge.”

Source: Confederation of African Football.