CAF Champions League semi finals: Northern derbies take centre stage
Any doubts about the power and prominence North Africa enjoys in the continental game today ought to be quashed by a quick glance at the CAF Champions League semi-final lineup.
After Mamelodi Sundowns and Ferroviario Beira fell in the quarters, we're left with a full house of teams from the north of the continent - one each from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria - as we reach the conclusion of Africa's premier club competition.
On Friday evening, USM Alger host Wydad Casablanca in the first leg of their double header, while continental giants Ahly - the most successful team in the history of the competition - travel to Sousse for a showdown with Etoile du Sahel.
Ahly may well fancy their chances as competition favourites, particularly after they eliminated another Tunisian heavyweight -- Esperance de Tunis -- in the quarters, drawing 2-2 in the first leg before holding their nerve to win 2-1 in a broiling atmosphere at the Stade Olympique de Rades.
Despite falling behind to a Taha Yassine Khenissi penalty, therefore needing two goals to win, Ahly rallied and equalised through Ali Maaloul, before the Tunisia left-back set up substitute Junior Ajayi for a winner just after the hour mark.
It's a game that puts them in good stead ahead of their showdown with ESS.
"The game against Etoile du Sahel will neither be harder nor more important than the games against Esperance," Maaloul told the club's official website. "At the moment, Ahly has only one idea in our minds, and that's the match against Etoile du Sahel - above all because it involves a team which was very enthusiastic supporters and many experienced players.
"We're very focused on this confrontation, and determined to get a positive result in Sousse, so that we can approach serenely the return match at home, in Borg Al-Arab," he added. "For my part, I promise Ahly fans to do my best to reproduce my performance against Esperance."
Expect the outstanding Maaloul to play a critical role once again, although Ahly - who won the Champions League five times between 2005 and 2013 -- are without Ahmed Al Cheikh (back) and Hossam Ashour (knee).
In the other semi, USMA and Wydad have met each other on several occasions in continental competition in recent years, but never quite when the stakes have been as high as this.
The Algerians' target is to go one better than their second-placed finish in 2015 when they were defeated 4-1 on aggregate by Congolese heavyweights Tout Puissant Mazembe, while Wydad were winners in 1992 but have only twice before reached the final four in subsequent years.
Wary of the potential hostilities that await them in the return leg in Casablanca, USMA midfielder Raouf Benguit is determined to pick up a big result in the first match at home on Friday evening.
"It's true that it will be a complicated meeting that we can't lose," he told competition.dz. "We have to be at our best on the day and, above all, get a good result.
"Now, we have nothing to lose and we need to give everything to be the best on the pitch. Anyway, we know we're facing a good team and what's awaiting us is going to be difficult.
"We want to pick up a good result with a big scoreline," he added. "For us, the away match is very important, and we have to give everything in order to pick up a big victory.
"We have to score in order to approach the return match in the best possible situation."
Easier said than done, perhaps, for USMA, who netted just once over 180 minutes against surprise package Ferroviario Beira in the quarter finals, and failed to score in front of their own fans in the second leg.
Expect Paul Put to shuffle his pack after this underwhelming stalemate, with the returning Okacha Hamzaoui one option to lift the Algerians.
Wydad were similarly goal shy in their quarter-final double header against Sundowns - winning on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate scoreline - but impressed during a 2-0 group-stage victory over Ahly back in June.
"Maghrebin derbies are always very competitive and relentless," Wydad coach Hussein Amotta told journalists [as per sport.le360.ma]. "USMA are very solid defensively - that's why they've got this far, they deserve this qualification - the meeting with the Algerians will be very difficult."