ABU DHABI // For the African club champions TP Mazembe, the chance to rub shoulders with European champions Barcelona represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the way the competition's draw pans out, Mazembe, who hail from the copper-rich southern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, will need to beat Asia's Pohang Steelers, then South America's Estudiantes, if they are to seal a dream date with Pep Guardiola's men in the December 19 final.
The Korean and Argentine opposition will be no pushovers and Mazembe's well-travelled French coach Diego Garzitto is not looking beyond the first game, against the Steelers tonight. "We'll play the same way we do every day," said Garzitto. "It will be a great match between the champions of Africa and Asia, but we want to win and we will play well. I've known this team since 2004 and we keep pro- gressing."
Garzitto, now in his second stint as coach of "The Crows", returned to the club last year as the key component of the Mazembe board's US$5million (Dh18.35m) investment programme to reclaim African honours. Now, having secured Mazembe's third continental title - their first since 1968 - Garzitto, a former coach of the Ethiopia and Togo national sides, has the chance to pit his wits against some of the world's foremost tacticians.
But if Mazembe are to progress, much will depend on the form of their highly-rated forward Tresor Mputu. Dubbed the next Samuel Eto'o by former Cameroon and Congo coach Claude Le Roy, Mputu, a reported target for English Premier League side Arsenal two years ago, is intent on using the Abu Dhabi tournament to put himself in the shop window. "This is a big competition and hopefully I can show to the world that I am a good player," said Mputu. "The country I go to is not important, only the club. I want to go to a good club where I can learn and progress."
Despite a tough match in prospect against the Steelers tonight, Mputu already has one eye a semi-final clash with Juan Sebastien Veron's Argentine Copa Libertadores winners Estud- iantes. "This is the first time Mazembe have played in this competition and to reach the semi-final would be fantastic for all the team," said Mputu. It is thoughts of facing Barcelona, however, which fill the Mazembe players' heads. And while it would be a huge shock if they reached the final, one of the club's entourage - watching a training session in the capital yesterday - described what might happen to the underdog Africans if they triumphed against the Spanish champions, who have a vast following in Africa and indeed worldwide.
"If we beat Barcelona, we won't be allowed to go home; we'll go to prison," laughed the Mazembe follower. @Email:email@example.com TP Mazembe v Pohang Steelers, KO 8pm, Aljazeera Sport 2