Troubled preparations affect Africa's giants ahead of CAF CL quarters
Al-Ahly clash with Tunisian giants Esperance in the first leg of their CAF Champions League quarter finals as they seek a tenth continental crown on Friday, with North African sides dominating the last eight, but they, like some of their rivals, have endured troubled preparations for the weekend's games.
Reigning champions Mamelodi Sundowns, one of only two non-North African sides still standing in the competition, host Wydad Casablanca, while surprise package Al-Ahli Tripoli meet Etoile du Sahel, and Ferroviario Beira face USM Alger.
On current form, Ahly may not seem too well placed to reach the final four in this - the first extended version of the Champions League - with the Egyptian giants having endured an unconvincing group-stage campaign in which they progressed with 11 points - level with Zambians Zanaco.
Their domestic campaign didn't get off to a smooth start either, as they were held 1-1 by El Geish -seventh in the table last term - in Sunday's opener.
However, the likes of Ahmed Fathi, Abdallah Said and Walid Soliman ensure the Club of the Century have talent and experience in abundance ahead of their showdown with Esperance, one of two all-North African derbies this weekend.
Nonetheless, the Tunisian heavyweights - keen to avenge their defeat by Ahly in the 2012 final - are confident that they can trouble the Cairene giants.
"Esperance and Al Ahly are among the strongest and best clubs in Africa, their history is filled with trophies and the meetings have a special flavour," goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia told local source Assabah.
"Currently, our team is in great shape, and we should have faith in our ability to return with a positive result from Egypt," he continued. "We have to give the game big attention like all our games, whatever the strength or the value of the opponent, without exaggerating or fearing anybody.
"All of the teams which reached this stage are more or less on the same level and all of them are great teams," he continued. "Personally I think our toughest opponents in the competition are going to be Ahly."
Esperance advanced to the quarters as Group C winners after finishing on 12 points, three ahead of reigning champions Sundowns, who host Wydad in Pretoria.
Like Ahly, Downs' preparation as been less than ideal, with Monday's victory over Free State Stars not completely eradicating unhappy memories of the shock home defeat by Polokwane City at the end of August.
"Our journey to reaching this stage of the competition hasn't been easy," coach Pitso Mosimane told journalists, as per IOL. "We've become the team to beat this time around, purely based on the fact that we are the defending champions.
"Unlike last season, we didn't have the 'champions' title next to our name, but now clubs have studied our strengths and are now are planning better against us," he added. "That is what comes with being a champion,"
Considering Wydad's troubled preparation, however, Mosimane may well consider his team are in decent shape ahead of their showdown.
According to reports in the local press, the Casablanca giants travelled to South Africa on Wednesday rather than Tuesday after their flight was overbooked, while the team were also barracked by the home supporters after being stunned 3-1 by rivals FUS Rabat in their league opener on Sunday.
The other North African side to travel south - USM Alger - also endured a disappointing start to their league campaign as they were held to two 1-1 draws, while they've also complained about the state of the pitch awaiting them in Mozambique.
Ferroviaro Beira - debutants in the competition- were unbeaten at the Estadio do Ferroviario in the group stage, and will be counting on home advantage to give them a first leg advantage against the Algerians.
"We have learned that the lawn is not in very good condition," centre-back Mohamed Benyahia told Le Buteur [as per ToutDZ]. "It's true that this is worrying for us because it makes the game harder and benefits our opponents.
"But it's no reason to give up," he added. "We have the experience to overcome this ordeal."
Despite the troubled build-up, USM Alger are favourites to progress over the two legs as they seek to reach a first final since 2015.
Finally, in another on-paper mismatch, Al-Ahli Tripoli host ESS in neutral Alexandria. The Libyans cannot be underestimated after progressing from Group B ahead of SC Zamalek, taking two points from the Egyptians in the process.
Muaid Ellafi, who caught the eye for Libya during the international break and is currently the top scorer left standing in the competition, will likely start for Talaat Youssef's side in their quarter-final debut.
However, Hubert Velud can count on firepower of his own in the form of Brazilian hitman Diogo Acosta, who memorably netted twice against Ferroviaro in the first group game to set ESS on their way to the knockouts.