Pan-African clashes will stretch Chiefs and Sundowns
Raja Casablanca of Morocco and TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo have both won Africa’s top club prize in the past two decades and are again among the leading contenders for this year’s title.
It is a misfortune of the draw that they are paired against South African opponents in only the second round of the 2015 African Champions League. Misfortune for who, though, will only be revealed when the two-legged ties are completed next month.
Kaizer Chiefs, having stumbled past opening-round opponents Township Rollers of Botswana, host Raja in Durban on Saturday night. They have moved the match there in search of better crowd support but have sacrificed the advantage of altitude in the process.
At exactly the same time (7pm kick-off), Mamelodi Sundowns take on Mazembe in Atteridgeville, Pretoria.
The contrast between the two South African outfits’ approaches to participation in the Champions League has, at times, been remarkably stark, with Sundowns infectiously embracing the challenge and Chiefs gritting their back teeth as they pay lip service to flying the flag and competing in a continental competition.
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane rattled off the entire Mazembe line-up and their strengths and weaknesses several weeks ago at a press conference to emphasise his slavish dedication to the cause of delivering the top prize on the continent to his club.
Downs will be well prepared for Mazembe, who have not only an array of African stars but also considerable experience in the competition, particularly in recent years. They were exceedingly unfortunate not to reach the final last year and were winners in 2009 and 2010, also going on to become the only African club to reach the final of the end-of-year Club World Cup.
The club is the fiefdom of the governor of the copper-rich Katanga province, Moïse Katumbi, whose access to the public purse has built Mazembe into one of the continent’s top clubs.
They even have their own new stadium, complete with top-of-the-range artificial turf.
No longer focused on procuring the best talent in the DRC, they have expanded their horizons and assembled a multinational squad with players from Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Tanzania and Zambia. At the recent Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea they were the club with the most players – seven – dotted across four national teams.
Frenchman Patrice Carteron, a former defender with Paris St Germain and Sunderland, is in charge and returns to South Africa for the first time since he led Mali past Bafana Bafana and to third place at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Besides their considerable resources, Mazembe are also renowned for their alleged ability to influence referees. Accusations of plentiful briefcases exchanging hands are all too common and their controversial tie against Orlando Pirates two years ago has now passed into South African footballing folklore.
Pirates narrowly eliminated Mazembe, but not before having two controversial penalties awarded against them as well as a dubious red card for skipper Lucky Lekgwathi. Both spot kicks were saved dramatically by the late Senzo Meyiwa to ensure a win for the Buccaneers.
Past their sell-by dates
That result did prove the fallibility of the Congolese and there are several key players well past their sell-by dates, notably 39-year-old goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba, who is famous for celebrating goals by bouncing along the turf on his posterior but who is also a calamity waiting to happen.
Chiefs’ opponents, Raja Casablanca, are a well-established name and were previously in South Africa in 1997, when they beat Orlando Pirates at Soccer City on their way to winning the Champions League.
Now coached by the Portuguese José Romão, they will be ultra-cautious in Durban and will seek to go home with at least a draw to secure a strong advantage for the return leg, which is set for the first weekend in April.
It means a creative Chiefs is needed in Durban on Saturday, but the team looked markedly leg-weary and mentally saturated midweek when they lost in the league to Maritzburg United.
Key players such as Reneilwe Letsholonyane, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Tsepo Masilela are losing their legs and, therefore, the edge that made them frequent match winners in the past. Without an established striker, Chiefs are threadbare in attack for a game in which they must take the attacking initiative and not wait for the quick counterattack, as is their approach domestically.
As they struggle to hold on to their massive lead in the Premier Soccer League, Chiefs will not be relishing the disruption of this Champions League tie. They were not all that keen to enter in the first place, and now their worst fears about the exertions of pan-African competition sapping their fight for domestic honours are beginning to be realised.
No wonder there has been little enthusiasm for what should be an absorbing challenge against a club from the other end of Africa with much the same profile as Chiefs, particularly in terms of the passionate support they command.