Record champions Al Ahly have to start making up lost ground quickly if they want to add a ninth CAF Champions League title to their impressive array of silverware. After two matches in the group phase, the Cairo giants are on zero points after surprising defeats to Zesco United and ASEC Mimosas, but the Red Devils will have a chance to climb back into the reckoning against in-form Wydad Casablanca this weekend.
The top two teams in each group advance to the semi-finals, with the eventual champion of the event qualifying for the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup at the end of the year.
Ahly, who earlier this week were slapped with a fine after their fans lit flares during their home defeat against ASEC Mimosas on the last matchday, go into the all-important home match against their table-topping Moroccan rivals on the back of a victory in an Egyptian Cup game. Dutch coach Martin Jol, who at the weekend celebrated winning the Egyptian title with a draw against arch-rivals Zamalek, was forced to change his tactics in the 2-1 cup win against Haras El-Hdoud.
Ahly played without highly-rated midfielder Ramadan Sobhi as well as striker Malik Evouna, who had a big-money transfer to China confirmed this week and will probably not be available for the Champions League match. Sobhi is also in the process of negotiating an overseas deal and could well already be in England by the time the match kicks off in Alexandria' Borg El Arab Stadium on Saturday.
“I changed tactics and used two strikers and less pressure on the wings,” Jol reflected, while leaving it to be seen how his side will line up against Wydad. Led by Liverpool playing legend and former Wales and Real Madrid coach John Toshack, Wydad knocked out five-time African champions TP Mazembe in the last round and have yet to concede a goal in the group stage.
The other Group A match sees Côte d'Ivoire club ASEC Mimosas, who stunned Al Ahly 2-1 in their last match, travel to Zambia to face Zesco United. Both teams have three points to their name after beating Ahly but losing to Wydad.
The Zambian club had to come from behind in their last league match to snatch a 1-1 draw against Mufulira Wanderers, with striker Jesse Were, who leads the Zambian scorer charts, grabbing the equaliser just before the break. The Kenyan hitman has found the net twice in the Champions League this year and could well be the man that Zesco coach George Lwandamina is looking towards to secure a result against Mimosas.
The visitors in Saturday's clash in the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola won their last league match against AS Denguele 1-0 – a result that still leaves them eight points behind league leaders Tanda with a game in hand. For ASEC coach Siaka Traore the victory came at an ideal time following a run of four league matches without a win. "We are going to Zambia to get points. We do not feel any pressure when we play on the road. It will not be easy for us, but we will give everything to come back with a good result that will allow us to increase our chances of playing in the semi-finals.”
Sundowns and Zamalek in driving seat
In Group B, where just three teams remain after ES Setif were thrown out of the competition following crowd violence in their home defeat against Sundowns, the South Africans return to North Africa for their clash against Zamalek. The White Knights won their opening game in Nigeria against Enyimba, while Sundowns beat the same opponent at home last month. With both clubs on three points from one match and Enyimba on zero from two, the door is open to walk into the semi-finals with a good result.
Unlike Sundowns, whose last league match took place at the end of May, Zamalek will take on their opponents fully match fit, having drawn with Al Ahly on the weekend and then beaten Ittihad El-Shorta in a cup game. However, Sundowns' players are confident of being able to hold their own in Cairo.
"There are three teams in the group now and two must qualify. Already we have three points, so this also puts us under pressure to win the game against Zamalek. We've watched them before and some of the games they've played. The only thing we saw is that they move the ball quickly, they are good in set-pieces, and they press.
"We have a plan for them. We must avoid corners and not give them set-pieces," international midfielder Themba Zwane told local media.