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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

CAF Champions League semi-finals: Egypt's Al Ahly seek goals in Africa and Esperance a clean sheet

Winners of Africa's Champions League tournament will earn a place at December's Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi

Islam Mohareb is one of the key attacking players for Egyptian club Al Ahly ahead of their African Champions League double-header against Algeria's Entente Setif. Reuters
Islam Mohareb is one of the key attacking players for Egyptian club Al Ahly ahead of their African Champions League double-header against Algeria's Entente Setif. Reuters

Al Ahly of Egypt hope to get in front while Esperance of Tunisia do not want to fall behind when they face contrasting CAF Champions League semi-finals first-leg challenges on Tuesday.

Record eight-time winners Ahly host Entente Setif of Algeria, who surprisingly eliminated defending champions Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in the quarter-finals.

Esperance are away to Primeiro Agosto of Angola, the shock last-eight conquerors of five-time African champions TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Setif and Esperance have won the elite CAF competition twice each, leaving Primeiro as the only survivors not to lift the trophy that symbolises African club supremacy and guarantees a spot in December's Fifa Club World Cup to be held in Abu Dhabi.

No Angolan club has reached the Champions League final and Primeiro are just the second side after Petro Atletico in 2001 to make the penultimate stage.

But Serbian manager Zoran Manojlovic believes the Luanda outfit can go all the way to the title decider.

"We will reach the final of the Champions League," he said. "My players are very humble and very hard workers and we know more or less the strengths and weaknesses of Esperance."

Ahly first won the competition in 1982 and most recently in 2013 when legend Mohamed Aboutrika retired after scoring in the final against Orlando Pirates of South Africa.

Esperance were African champions in 1994 and 2011 and Setif succeeded in 1988 and 2014, and both clubs regularly compete in continental competitions.

Pundits are predicting an Ahly-Esperance final, but Setif and Primeiro must have developed a lot of confidence from their quarter-finals triumphs.

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Primeiro v Esperance is a pairing no one outside of Angola would have predicted with Primeiro consistently poor performers in recent Champions League campaigns.

And while Esperance have had much better results, many believe five CAF titles is not a great return given the number of local and international stars who have played for them.

That Primeiro are in the semi-finals after notching only 13 goals in 12 matches is remarkable with leading scorer Jacques Bitumba managing a meagre tally of four.

He, fellow attacker Lompala Bokamba and centre-back Muselenge Ungenda hail from DR Congo and striker Ibukun Akinfenwa and defender Kehinde Anifowoshe are Nigerians.

Most Angolan footballers prefer Brazil-style nicknames so creative midfielder Hermenegildo da Costa Paulo Bartolomeu is known as Geraldo, no doubt to the relief of commentators.

Esperance also have their share of foreigners, including Ivorian Fousseny Coulibaly, Cameroonian Franck Kom and Algerian Mohamed Belaili in midfield.

Meanwhile, a French coach, a Malian centre-back and a Moroccan striker have played key roles in the revival of Ahly after they were in danger of becoming high-profile group casualties.

The Cairo club took only a point from a possible six before French-born Patrice Carteron replaced Hossam el Badry and delivered five victories and a draw.

His first signing was veteran Mali defender Salif Coulibaly, who has not only stabilised the defence but also scored twice, including the winner in a key group match.

Most of the goals, though, have come from Moroccan Walid Azaro, who has bagged six in the Champions League this season, four more than any teammate.

Setif made an even worse start to the group phase than Ahly, losing twice, but since then have gone six matches unbeaten under Moroccan Rachid Taoussi.

Goalkeeper Mustapha Zeghba was outstanding in a 0-0 second-leg draw at Wydad Casablanca and he is set to face an equally busy time at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo.