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CAF Champions League preview: Clash of the Titans

For the first time in the history of the CAF Champions League, the semifinal line-up will consist of the previous four winners, as Mamelodi Sundowns meet Wydad Casablanca, and Tout Puissant Mazembe and Esperance de Tunis clash in a pair of engrossing first legs.

Congolese giants Mazembe have had to wait the longest to get their hands on Africa's grandest club prize again, but are the most successful side still standing, having conquered the continent on five occasions since 1967.

Their last Champions League title came in 2015, but recent failures in the continent's premier club competition have been mitigated by successes in the Confederation Cup, as Les Corbeaux secured back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.

This is a squad that knows how to win high-profile matches, and they'll be desperate to make their recent experiences count when they face defending champions Esperance away on Saturday.

"Mazembe are the biggest team in Africa, and since 2015 we didn't qualify to play in the Champions League, or we were eliminated last season [by Primeiro de Agosto in the quarterfinals], so now I think it's our chance to win this title again," Zambia midfielder Nathan Sinkala told ESPN. 

"We've been there before," he added. "Our focus is just on winning the cup, which won't be easy, but we're doing our best to win it.

"Esperance are also a big team, so the game will be tough, but we're ready for it - and looking forward to it."

Even without key striker Ben Malango, who's missed much of the campaign after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, Mazembe were the top scorers in the group stage, scoring 13, including eight in a remarkable demolition of Tunisia's Club Africain.

They were held away at Tanzanian champions Simba SC in the quarterfinals, but, inspired by veteran playmaker Tresor Mputu - one of the players of the tournament so far - ran out 4-1 winners in front of their own fans in Lubumbashi.

"Once [Mputu] performs well, the team also performs well," added Sinkala, a veteran of the 2015 success. "We're there to help him, to protect him, so that he can help the team.

"I think he's going to deliver in Saturday's game."

Malango has told ESPN that he's fit to play against Esperance, and could form a menacing attacking unit alongside wonderkid Jackson Muleka and Elia Meschak.

"It's been the hardest year," he conceded, "but bit and bit I'm returning to form. I'm definitely going to play a strong match this weekend, but we know Esperance, it isn't easy here."

"It's vital for us to win the Champions League this year," continued the Democratic Republic of Congo international. 

"It's been three seasons without being in the semifinal, or the final, so it's important for us to reach it this year...and go on to win the cup."

While Mazembe coach Mihayo Kazembe welcomes his star man back into the team, Esperance will likely be without the influential Anice Badri, top scorer in last year's Champions League.

The Tunisia international has confirmed to ESPN that he's resumed training, but remains doubtful for Saturday's clash in Rades.

There are also concerns about captain Khalil Chammam, goalkeeper Rami Jeridi and Mohamed Ali Yaakoubi, according to Kapitalis, although Youcef Belaili remains a major threat for the holders. 
  


Esperance were the only side in the tournament to remain unbeaten during the group stage, but their defensive vulnerabilities, particularly without Chammam, were exposed at times as they advanced past CS Constantine -- 5-2 on aggregate -- in the quarterfinal.

The reigning champions will be relying on the midfield trio of Fousseny Coulibaly, Franck Kom and Ghaylen Chaalali to feed Belaili and Tunisia international Taha Yassine Khenissi, and they'll be desperate to secure a comfortable win in front of their own fans ahead of the second leg, knowing what a threat Mazembe pose at home.

At least Esperance should still be in contention ahead of the second leg, which wasn't the case when these two met in the 2010 Champions League final. On that occasion, a 5-0 whitewash for Mazembe at home killed the tie before the Tunisians at least partially saved face with a 1-1 draw at the Stade 7 November.

In the other semi-final, which takes place on Friday, 2016 champions Sundowns host their 2017 successors Wydad, as two clubs who have crossed swords on numerous occasions in recent seasons will renew hostilities. 

The duo met in the group stage, where a Themba Zwane double secured a 2-1 victory for the Brazilians in front of their own fans in South Africa in January.

Two months later, Wydad took maximum points, as right-back Mohamed Nahiri, who had bagged the Moroccans' consolation goal in Pretoria, struck the only goal of the game.

Last year, Wydad had the edge during the group stage, while in 2017, the Moroccans eliminated the then-reigning champions on penalties at the quarterfinal stage en route to their second Champions League.

This time around, Sundowns might have the edge, and will certainly be full of confidence after securing one of the finest results in the club's history in the previous round.

Al-Ahly, the most successful club in Africa, were admittedly abject when they showed up at the Lucas Moripe Stadium earlier this month, but few could have foreseen Downs demolishing the Cairene giants quite so ruthlessly.

The 5-0 defeat was Ahly's worst on the continent, and the result didn't flatter the Brazilians, who were unfazed by a 1-0 defeat in the redundant return fixture in Alexandria a week later.

Wydad were similarly convincing at home, dismissing Horoya AC of Guinea 5-0 at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium following a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

Regardless of their own accomplished display, it's clear that Sundowns' evisceration of Ahly left an impression on Wydad's players.

"We can't forget that they defeated Ahly," Nigerian striker Gabriel Okechukwu told ESPN. "We're mindful of that, and we'll try our best to make good use of our home advantage, and to score as many goals as we can to make it easier for us in the second leg.

"Sundowns are no strangers to Wydad," he added, "both teams know each other very well, so it won't be an easy game for us.

"However, with the determination and the spirit in the camp, I believe we'll carry the day."

While Zwane, with six goals so far in the competition, has been key to Downs' progress to date, so the athletic Nahiri - with five - has been a consistent key performer for Wydad.

Expect this one to be a methodical, tactical affair, with coaches Pitso Mosimane and Faouzi Benzarti keen to prove that they've learned exactly how to bring down increasingly familiar foe in this rare example of a trans-continental African club rivalry.

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