Impressive north African clubs eye CAF Cup final places
A quartet of in-form north African clubs, CS Sfaxien, Renaissance Berkane, Zamalek and Etoile Sahel, will contest the CAF Confederation Cup semi-final first legs on Sunday.
All have impressed lately in the African equivalent of the UEFA Europa League, making predictions as to the likely outcomes in Sfax and Alexandria difficult.
Record three-time trophy-holders Sfaxien of Tunisia have lost only one of their last 10 CAF matches and Berkane of Morocco just one in nine.
Zamalek of Egypt, the most successful of the four contenders with nine CAF titles, have recovered from a shaky start to the campaign by going seven games unbeaten.
Etoile Sahel, the second Tunisian challengers, also improved as the competition progressed and have triumphed in five of their last six CAF outings.
Here, AFP Sport previews the first legs as the clubs seek places in the two-leg final and a chance to pocket the $1.25 million (1.12 million euros) top prize.
Sfaxien v Berkane
Much could hinge on Sfaxien goal poachers Alaa Marzouki and Firas Chaouat as the hosts seek a commanding first-leg lead at Stade Taieb Mhiri in the Mediterranean industrial city of Sfax.
Between them, they have contributed nine of the 15 goals in 12 matches that took the club that lifted the Confederation Cup in 2007, 2008 and 2013 to the penultimate phase.
There is a link with the triumph six years ago as current coach and former Dutch star Ruud Krol was also in charge then before leaving to take charge of the Tunisian national team.
Berkane have scored 26 goals -- the most of the four survivors -- but it is their defence that is set to play a crucial first-leg role with Sfaxien expected to dominate possession.
A Renaissance rearguard that includes Burkina Faso centre-back Issoufou Dayo has conceded nine goals in 12 matches, and never more than two in six away games.
The Moroccans have already gone further than last year in the second-tier competition as they were eliminated in the 2018 quarter-finals by V Club from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Zamalek v Etoile
This tie is a repeat of a 2015 semi-final won by Etoile on aggregate after two unexpected results with the Tunisians building a 5-1 first-leg lead and crashing 3-0 in the return game.
The semi-final produced an unusually large number of goals for a showdown between two north Africans clubs, who traditionally boast strong defences.
It was a shock outcome with Zamalek expected to meet Cairo neighbours and bitter rivals Al Ahly in the final, but neither side made it.
This will be the second successive regional clash for the Egyptian White Knights after edging past Hassania Agadir of Morocco thanks to Ibrahim Hassan, scorer of the only goal of the tie.
A blow for Zamalek will be the absence of injured Tunisian playmaker Ferjani Sassi, whose broken heel bone rules him out of the first leg at the Borg el Arab Stadium in Alexandria.
Unlike the other semi-finalists, an Etoile side guided by 77-year-old former France coach Roger Lemerre has no stand-out scorers with the 14 goals coming from 10 different players.