Voice of Sport

Sudan at stand-still as El Merreikh, Al Hilal seek to reach Champions League Final

In Sudan, a soccer mad nation, in all walks of life you are either Red [of Merreikh] or Blue [of Hilal]. But this time round, they are wishing each other good luck, for both teams to reach the Champions League Final


2015 CAF Champions League:

Semi-finals:

Saturday, Sep 26:

El Merreikh (Sudan) v TP Mazembe (Congo Kinshasa) – 21.00H   Omdurman (El Merreikh Stadium)

Sunday, Sep 27:

Al Hilal (Sudan) v USM Alger (Algeria) – 20.00H Omdurman (Al Hilal Stadium)

A special report by BADR ELDIN BAKHEIT in OMDURMAN, Sudan

IT is Champions League semi-finals time and the mood is at frenzy in Omdurman of Khartoum and Sudan in general. Absolute soccer mega clubs, Al Hilal and El Merreikh are on the verge of making an unprecedented all-Sudan Final.

But El Merreikh must first get past four-time winning giants TP Mazembe of Congo Kinshasa and Al Hilal must eliminate USM Alger of Algeria. The first leg semi-finals are both in Sudan this weekend.

Supporters

There is no love lost between supporters of Al Hilal and El Merreikh, spread almost equally throughout the country. In Sudan, a soccer mad nation, in all walks of life you are either Red [of Merreikh] or Blue [of Hilal]. But this time round, they are wishing each other good luck, for both teams to reach the Champions League Final.

During the final, it will then be everyone for himself. And Omdurman, the bustling sub-city across the River Nile from central Khartoum will experience a rare soccer fever. The stadiums of the two historic clubs are barely half a kilometre apart. Earlier, the bigger one was the Red Castle of Merreikh, a 44,000 seater, but now a recently rebuilt Al Hilal Stadium, a stone-throw away can host 40,000 of the passionate Al Hilal loyalists who when they cheer, are known as “The Blue Wave”.

Disaster

It will be disaster for half the country if one the team fails, double disaster if TP Mazembe and USM Alger go through.

El Merreikh open the campaign on Saturday in intriguing tie for their coach, Frenchman Diego Garzitto. With El Merreikh, Garzitto will ironically be facing TP Mazembe the club with which he made a name for himself. He guided the DR Congo side to CAF Champions League glory in 2009.

Also ironically, before winning the Champions League, Garzitto’s TP Mazembe had met El Merreikh at the “Red Castle” and the Congolese were knocked out of the Cecafa [Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations] Kagame Cup in the semi-finals. Garzitto knows that TP Mazembe are not invincible, at least not at El Merreikh Stadium.

Hurdle

TP Mazembe retain some of their best players of the 2009 championship side and the El Merreikh 65-year old coach realises that they will be a high hurdle to go over.

He told CAF online: “Some of the players [of the 2009 Champions League victory] are no longer with the team such as Tresor Mputu Mabi, Mulota Kabangu and Bedi Mbenza. But the likes of Jean Kasusula, Muteba Kidiaba and Given Singuluma are still around.

Harmony

“I have good memories of my Mazembe days. Now I’m with El Merreikh and I have goals I desire to achieve with them. Mazembe has experienced changes over the years but not in the best direction. They are not the same strong team they used to be. I know their weak and strong points. In spite of the quality of players, they are not in harmony. I cannot deny the fact that I have waited five years for this moment.”

A lot of focus will be on the El Merreikh coach, everyone wanting to see how he operates on the opposing bench against the club he enjoyed such a fruitful spell with between 2008 and 2010.

Youthful side

“I had two stints with TP Mazembe, the first from 2003-2004, and later 2008-2010. It was a youthful team during both spells,” he told CAF Online.

Garzitto said winning by one or two goals would be a good result on Saturday and if they won by 3-0 “it would be the perfect result.”

He said: “My strategy is to attack in both home and away matches; like we did against Esperance (Tunisia) and Kabuscorp (Angola) at the knockout stages. We have a strong attack with the likes of Bakri ‘Al Medina’ Babiker, Didier Lebri and Francis Coffie, who have the ability to score in Omdurman and DR Congo. There is nothing to worry about.”

Prominent

El Merreikh players and fans see a historic opportunity that must not be missed; qualifying for the Final and winning the title outright. A great possibility because their big gun nemesis from  North and West Africa — eg Al Ahly, Zamaleck, Esperance, Raja Casablanca, WAC Casablanca, Enyimba, Asec Mimosas etc– did not feature prominently in this year’s Champions League.

Reaching the semi-finals of this year’s championship is considered a feat; an indicator that this year’s Merreikh team is over a promising pedigree. But TP Mazembe is a name that will provide a high hurdle to go over. The first of the test is on Saturday night in the first leg of the semi-finals in Omdurman.

Six games

El Merreikh started participating in CAF’s club competitions in 1971. They have a considerably proud history in the continent, once winning the African Cup Winners’ Cup — “Mandela Cup” in 1989. They reached the final of the Confederation Cup in 2007, losing to Tunisia’s CS Sfaxien home and away.

This year, El Merreikh succeeded in dealing with the three Algerian teams in the group stage; beat Mouloudia Club d’El Eulma home and away; tied 0-0 with E. S. Setifienne, then won 3-0 in Omdurman and lost to U.S.M Alger then won 1-0 in Omdurman. The El Merreikh success rate is above 80%. They won four [4] games, drew one [1] and also lost one [1]. They had 13 points. In comparison, TP Mazembe collected 11 points in six games from Group ‘B’. They achieved the biggest win, 5-0 won over Morocco’s Moghreb Athletic Tetouane.

Penalty awards

El Merreikh’s success is attributable to Garzitto’s approach with attacking football. Some of the players who played a big role in showing the team’s character during each match included young Ugandan goal-keeper Jamal Salem Magoola, defender Ala Eddin Yussuf, Nigerian defensive-midfielder Salomon Japson, Egyptian utility Ayman Saeed and the superstar striker Bakri Abdel Abdulgadir, who scored five goals, won three penalty awards, and set up the three crucial scored opportunities.

But TP Mazembe, four-time Champions League winner — 1967, 1968, 2009 and 2010 –bring an awesome history to Omdurman on Saturday.

Arrival

With a huge contingent, they had an early arrival in Sudan; one week before kick-off. The decision by their French coach Patrice Carteron was in order to adapt to the hot weather.

Key TP Mazembe actors for the Saturday clash will include Tanzanian striking duo of Mbwana Samatta and Thomas Ulimwengu and Zambian Maestro Rainford Kalaba.

Conditions

El Merreikh last met in the Champions League in the third phase in 2012. Mazembe eliminated Merreikh, winning the home tie in Lubumbashi 2-0, and then drawing 1-1 in the Omdurman return. But all that will not count, according to Garzitto: “We are yet to lose in our last six home matches, with no goal conceded. This is a wonderful record.

“We have had a good preparatory camp. All the players are concentrated and know their role in the upcoming match. They have developed a winning mentality for all matches. We are working hard to achieve our goals. El Merreikh is in one of its best conditions ever. We will exploit the weak points in Mazembe to win the match.”

SUNDAY, Sep 27:

Al Hilal v USM Alger

Sudanese giant Al Hilal have more than proud to protect against Algerians when they face USM [Union Sportive Médina d’Alger] Alger at Hilal Stadium, Omdurman on Sunday.

In 1982 the proud Hilal shockingly humiliated in the opening round African champions JS Kabylie, another Algerian side. After winning their home tie in 1-0 in Omdurman, Hilal lost 0-1 to Kabylie in Algeria but eliminated their mighty hosts on a penalty shoot-out.

Bracing

Hilal are bracing for a repercussions from the Algerians but will be buoyed by the fact that fellow Sudanese and Omdurman rivals, El Merreikh, have had a very good run against Algerian sides — Mouloudia Club d’El Eulma, E. S. Setifienne and in fact U.S.M Alger – in this year’s Champions League run.

Al Hilal will be more than motivated to match El Merreikh who had Group Stage success against USM Alger. The memories of having gotten the better of the mighty JS Kabylie will also motivate Hilal. But they will be wary of the current form of USM, the team that topped Group ‘A’ after winning in five games out of six, while Hilal came second in Group ‘B’.

Proud record

On their way to the semi-finals Al Hilal started strongly forcing the hosting TP Mazembe to a 0-0 in Lubumbashi, and then got another away point from the 1-1 draw with Morroco’s Moghreb Athletic Tetouane. Hilal had the same result in Alexandria against Egyptian side Smouha. But at home Hilal suffered one defeat, to Moghreb Athletic Tetouane. However they won the Smouha [2-0] and TP Mazembe [1-0] clashes in Omdurman.

Hilal enter the Sunday game also with a proud record in CAF Club competitions. They reached seven semi-finals of the African Cup of Champion Clubs /CAF Champions League in 1966, 1987, 1992, 2007, 2009, 2011and 2015, and the CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals in 2010 and 2012.

Talented

Hilal Tunisian head coach Nabil Al Kouki has determined men, technically and physically ready to show their ability to win; which means favourable opportunity to add a record to their history.

The team roster looks strong in captain Saif Eldin Masawi and the Senegalese right back Suliamane Cisse, both of who have had solid performances in all previous matches. Another stand-out is the left back, the talented Sudanese Abdulatif Bouya.

Top scorer

Other key players are defensive midfielder Nasreldin Al Shighel, the best in Sudan this time, and the playmaking trio of Bisha, Nazar Hamid and the Brazilian Anderzinho. The Hilal attacking line includes the 2013 Cecafa Challenge Cup [for Sudan] top scorer Salah Al Jizouli and Mudathir Careca.

Besides the desire of its players, Hilal will also depend on their great fans; “The Blue Wave” who have developed a lot in recent years as they have created music and songs to glorify the team and players. They wave thousands of flags, don Hilal official kit and colors. An exciting scene is set to flood Omdurman on Sunday.