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Zamalek aren’t in great shape domestically, having parted ways with Milutin Sredojevic earlier in the campaign, although in Achraf Bencharki and Mostafa Mohamed they boast an attacking duo who can hurt any opposition in the continent.
Indeed, no player in the group stage won as many aerial battles as Mostafa, and Zamalek have conceded just one in their last five matches on the continent.
Notably, Micho’s successor, Patrice Carteron, has been in this situation before, having revived Al-Ahly midway through their run to the 2018 final.
Could he repeat the trick with the reigning Caf Confederation Cup holders?
Etoile du Sahel
Algeria’s Karim Aribi is ESS’s biggest asset, and he’ll be ably supported by veteran magician Yassine Chikhaoui, who still packs a punch at this level.
Aribi netted three times in the group stage, and has 10 in 10 in Caf competitions for Etoile du Sahel, drawing parallels with Baghdad Bounedjah.
However, despite an early victory over Al-Ahly in the group stage, the Tunisians were defeated at home by Sudan’s Al-Hilal in December—a result that showed their vulnerabilities—as their 14-game unbeaten run game to a screeching halt.
Ahly were the last of the big boys to seal their progress from the group stages, only advancing as runners-up behind Etoile du Sahel having failed to win away—including a draw at FC Platinum.
Ultimately, they advanced after holding Al-Hilal 1-1 away in Omdurman, a match overshadowed by a fan invasion late in the game.
They’re strong at home, but can be brittle away, although having bossed possession and completed more passes than the other sides in the competition, they have attributes that should serve them well in the challenges to come.
The likes of Walid Soliman and Ali Maaloul are seasoned veterans who know how to go the distance in the competition.
Despite being seven points behind Wydad Casablanca in the Botola, Raja boast quality across the park, and cannot be discounted.
In Badr Banoun, they boast one of the best defenders currently plying his trade in Africa, and the Moroccan has been unlucky not to secure a move away from the domestic giants over the last two years.
He’s weighed in with big goals in their last two group-stage games, while attackers Ben Malango and Soufiane Rahimi are also a useful duo and Jamal Sellami is a talented tactician.
This Raja squad have experience of winning together, having clinched the Confederation Cup and the Super Cup in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
They may be off the pace domestically, but Sundowns have a genuine chance of adding a second continental crown this season.
Pitso Mosimane’s side have experience—having won the title in 2016—while in Gaston Sirino, they boast the single most creative talent of the group stage. The attacker created 13 chances from open play during the last round, and a further four from set pieces.
They’re one of only two teams to remain unbeaten through the group stage, and while Mosimane will respect any potential next-round opponent, he’ll fear none.
“As much as we respect TP Mazembe and Esperance de Tunis, as much as we say going to Tunis is not easy, but can someone say that they want to go to Pretoria?” Mosimane asked journalists.
“You should be very brave because sometimes you don’t find the ball here.”
Sundowns’ 5-0 home victory over Al-Ahly at the quarter-final stage last year is a sign of just what they’re capable of at this level.
Tout Puissant Mazembe
Top scorers in the group stage, Mazembe began their campaign in style, with a 3-0 evisceration of SC Zamalek, and were the second side—along with Sundowns—to go undefeated throughout the campaign.
They were also the top scorers of the round, netting 11, with Jackson Muleka in particularly imperious form.
The 20-year-old has scored seven in the tournament so far—more than the top scorers in the last two campaigns—and could cement his status as the best striker based in Africa over the coming months.
Behind him, Tresor Mputu remains a talent of great ingenuity, and at home, in particular, Les Corbeaux are a lethal prospect.
Defeated finalists last time around—although they will surely dispute that—Wydad have the motivation and the sense of injustice that may just give them the edge over their opponents.
An excellent squad also helps, and the Botola leaders boast talent across the park, notably in the form of Walid El Karti, Kazadi Kasengu and Badie Aouk.
The loss to Ayoub El Kaabi, who returns to China after his brief loan spell, is a loss, and it also remains to be seen how the Moroccan giants will fare under Sebastien Desabre, who has been appointed as Zoran Manojlovic’s successor.
The reigning champions are weaker than they were a year ago following the loss of influential Tunisia international Anice Badri.
It was inevitable that the talented forward would leave eventually, but his exit to Saudi Arabia denies Esperance both a goal threat and a big-game player.
The Tunisian giants remain tough to break down, even if they showed some vulnerability by taking just one point from their last two group games, with their 12-match unbeaten group-stage streak ending against JS Kaybylie at the weekend.
They don’t exactly win over the neutrals, but three consecutive Champions League titles is well within Esperance’s grasp.