Over the last few days, the anticipation among Wydad Casablanca supporters has reached fever pitch as they look forward to their club’s biggest fixture of the season so far: the first leg of their CAF Champions League semi-final versus Egyptian giants Zamalek.
The path to the semi-finals has certainly not been a walk in the park for Wydad. After having made it through a preliminary round and then disposed of CNaPS Sport (Madagascar) in the first round proper, the Moroccans came up against the formidable defending champions, TP Mazembe (Congo DR), in the Round of 16. Against the odds, they achieved a 2-0 victory in Marrakesh, prior to securing a resilient 1-1 draw in Lubumbashi that qualified them for the subsequent round.
Young winger Reda Hajhouj has been one of Wydad’s key players in their Champions League run this season, scoring twice in the preliminary round, twice in the first round and twice – once in each leg – versus TP Mazembe.
“It’s been a long road, because we came through three rounds before reaching the group stage,” he told FIFA.com. “Each match was difficult and decisive, particularly the away game against TP Mazembe. Despite the weather conditions and the loud home support, we managed to qualify and continue on this great adventure.”
After eliminating last year’s winners, Wydad were placed in Group A alongside Al-Ahly (Egypt), ASEC Mimosas (Côte d'Ivoire) and Zesco United (Zambia). Unexpectedly, they finished top of the challenging pool to advance to the semi-finals.
“Playing against such great African teams is always tough,” said Hajhouj. “As players, we were hoping that Al-Ahly would accompany us into the semi-finals, because they’re a big name, and they’ve won this tournament more than any other club. But the football gods chose Zesco, who actually deserved to qualify.
“We knew from the start that it wasn’t going to be an easy task, but we believed we had a chance and right from the off we played with great determination. That enabled us to top the group and then reach the semis.”
In the last four Wydad were paired with Zamalek, with the first leg due to take place on 16 September in Cairo, and the return match scheduled for 23 September in Morocco. “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. This semi-final is going to be a bit like a final, I think,” said the Casablanca native.
Eyes on Japan
Wydad’s supporters and players, Hajhouj included, are now beginning to dream of taking on the best Planet Football has to offer at the FIFA Club World Cup. “Our dream is to win the Champions League and qualify for the Club World Cup, as it’s a competition that brings together some of the greatest clubs in the world, like Real Madrid. We would love to play a team like that, but we shouldn’t count our chickens.”
Hajhouj, who recently celebrated his 22nd birthday, has given some thought to what it would mean to compete at Japan 2016 at such a young age. “As a player, it would be marvellous to take part in the Club World Cup in Japan. But as I said, we need to focus on our semi-final for now,” he explained.
Before wrapping up the interview with FIFA.com, Hajhouj revealed Wydad’s objectives for this season, at national and continental level. “Wydad are always involved in the title race, because we’re a big team and we don’t accept second best,” he said.
“The level of competition will be high this year, because the other clubs have strengthened their teams and prepared well for the league campaign. Although we want to win the Moroccan League, the most important targets for us are reaching the Champions League final and then winning that so we can play at the Club World Cup.
“The entire club is concentrated on the Champions League at the moment. Once that comes to an end, we’ll bring our focus back to the national championship.”