Africa's finest await CAF Champions League quarterfinals draw
For the first time since the expansion of the CAF Champions League to include a quarterfinals stage, all of the eight teams to reach the knockout stages are former winners.
Following the controversy that overshadowed last year's edition, with Esperance awarded the title despite the second leg of their final against Wydad Casablanca in Rades, Tunisia, being abandoned after the Moroccans protested the officials' non-usage of VAR, this year's tournament has largely returned focus to the action on the pitch.
There have been outstanding performances aplenty during the group stage, with the pick of North African football now joined in the knockouts by sub-Saharan Africa's strongest teams -- Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa and Congolese giants Tout Puissant Mazembe -- in the draw to take place on Feb. 9
Largely, Africa's traditional powerhouses have sidestepped the failings that have brought them down in recent seasons -- foremost among them SC Zamalek's capitulation at the hands of Ethiopia's Wolaitta Dicha SC in 2018 -- to reach the final eight, making for an unprecedentedly strong quarterfinals line-up.
Indeed, there has been little scope for surprise during the tournament to date, with none of Primeiro de Agosto, USM Alger nor ZESCO United able to upset the bigger teams in their respective pool to repeat heroics from recent years.
Similarly, while Zimbabwe's FC Platinum deserve credit for their consistency, having made the group stage for the second consecutive campaign, they endured the worst record of any of the 24 teams in the round, taking just one point from their six matches; they are the only team in the tournament's history to go winless in two group-stage campaigns.
Overall, the smaller teams fared poorly at home against the traditional giants, with nine away wins across the four groups, few surprise results, and all but one of the pools being settled ahead of the final round of fixtures.
That's not to say that there wasn't intense competition, with an average of 2.13 goals scored -- the lowest in 13 years; the matches were often tight and cagey, while only Mazembe and Sundowns remained unbeaten.
Al-Ahly Leave It Late
The group stage wasn't entirely without controversy, given that Al-Ahly's 1-1 draw with Sudan's Al-Hilal on match day six -- when the hosts had to win to progress at the Egyptians' expense -- was overshadowed by a fan riot in which home supporters appeared to attack the visiting players.
Al-Hilal were subsequently fined a provisional $100,000 by CAF, although they will pay only half that amount if there is not a repeat offence within the coming 12 months.
Al-Ahly, under Swiss coach Rene Weiler, are the most successful side in the competition's history, and they will be expected to challenge again for the top honours.
However, they were uninspiring during their group-stage campaign -- failing to win any of their away games -- and memories of last year's 5-1 aggregate defeat by Sundowns in the quarterfinals are yet to be completely banished.
Zamalek are the second Egyptian team still standing in the competition, and they'll be hoping for some continent reprieve amid a disappointing domestic run in which they find themselves 11 points behind bitter city rivals Al-Ahly.
Milutin Sredojevic was sacked in December, replaced by Patrice Carteron, and the Frenchman may be the White Knights' key asset as he galvanised a beleaguered Al-Ahly team and inspired them to the title in 2018.
Sundowns: Focus on Africa
Sundowns themselves may be off the pace in the Premier Soccer League in South AFrica, where Kaizer Chiefs' remarkable return to form has left Pitso Mosimane's side trailing by 10 points, but there are reasons for encouragement from their group-stage campaign in the continental competition.
In Uruguay's Gaston Sirino, they boast the tournament's most productive creator -- no one can match the 17 goalscoring opportunities he created in the group stage -- while they were also the most effective in front of goal, having converted nine of their 63 attempts on goal.
Mosimane has experience of conquering the continent, having taken the Brazilians to the title in 2016, and he can call on goals from across his team, with the likes of Sibusiso Vilakazi, Hlompho Kekana and Motjeka Madisha all weighing in with important efforts during the group stage.
Most impressive, perhaps, were their two bouts against defeated finalists Wydad -- avoiding defeat away before securing a 1-0 victory in Pretoria; both performances bode well for the challenges to come in the knockouts.
2019's Finalists in The Hat
The loss in South Africa was a disappointing end to Wydad's group-stage campaign -- even if they were already secured a spot in the knockouts. Effective set-pieces have been a key feature of their campaign, and they were the second-top scorers of the last round, with 10 in six games.
A sense of burning injustice in Wydad may also give them an edge as they look to win a third Champions League title.
"I hope to go as far as possible, and why not, let's actually win the title," midfielder Yahya Jabrane told ESPN, reflecting on last year's failure in the final.
"I've [now] got a great desire to win it this season.
"The next one will be even better."
Soufiane Karkache, a new recruit from RS Berkane, said: "At Wydad, we always want to go right to the end and win everything possible."
It remains to be seen how the Moroccan heavyweights will adapt to life under new French coach Sebastian Desabre, who was appointed in January following a brief spell back in Egyptian football at Pyramids FC, and Ayoub El Kaabi's return to China denies them a goal threat at this level.
A reunion with Esperance in the quarterfinals could be a tempestuous affair, although the Tunisian giants are among the top contenders for the title following a strong group showing in which they were only defeated in their final match -- against JS Kabylie -- when progression was secured.
"The competition in the Champions League is going to be difficult, but we've got a team who can do something again this year." 23-year-old utility man Raouf Benguit told ESPN.
"I'm optimistic that we're going to go as far as possible in this tournament."
Algeria international Benguit has settled well at the reigning champions after progressing from Paradou AC's much admired academy, and, having netted in the 2-2 draw with Raja Casablanca in January, he wants to win the continental crown for himself.
"It's normal to feel some pressure as we've got a title to defend," he said.
However, Esperance are weakened notably by the loss of Tunisia international Anice Badri, who left for Saudi Arabia's Ittihad Jeddah in January. His big-game experience and ability to make a difference in wide areas proved critical in the latter stages of recent CAF Champions League campaigns, and he will be missed.
A Congolese Connection
Tunisia and Morocco are also represented in the final eight by Etoile du Sahel, inspired still by the veteran genius of Yassine Chikhaoui as well as towering frontman Karim Aribi, and Raja Casablanca, who boast a talented cast including Badr Banoun, Fabrice Ngah, Soufiane Rahimi and Congolese duo Ben Malango and Fabrice Ngoma.
Malango's departure for Morocco denied TP Mazembe the services of one of the finest frontmen still plying his trade in Africa, but his shoes have been filled capably by Jackson Muleka, who's surely destined for a move to a European league in 2020.
Muleka, 20, has ensured that Mazembe ought to be considered among the favourites for the crown, with the club having top scored in the group stage, with 11 goals, and remained unbeaten.
Muleka himself has seven goals in the competition so far this season, already more than all three of the players to share the Golden Boot across the previous two campaigns, and he continues to shine in tandem with the veteran Tresor Mputu.
Since bursting onto the scene, Muleka has 10 goals across the past two CAF Champions League group-stage campaigns -- six more than any other player over the same period.
"His goals helped us advance to the next round," Uganda and Mazembe's Joseph Ochaya told ESPN.
"They also added to our overall goals, we're the team that've scored the most in the tournament.
"It's not been easy [to get this far], but I know God will make us realise our target of getting to the final."
Muleka himself believes that Les Corbeaux, last champions in 2015, can go one further and end their wait for the African title.
"Why not," Muleka told ESPN.
"We're going to hold on and go right to the end, with the grace of God."