Champions League: Southern African clubs set for semi-final
When Zesco United of Zambia host Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa on Saturday it will be only the second Champions League semi-final involving clubs from southern Africa.
The first was 15 years ago when Sundowns' previous appearance at the penultimate stage of the premier African club competition ended with a penalty shootout victory over Petro Atletico of Angola.
North Africa have dominated the competition with teams from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria winning 28 of 51 finals.
Central African sides have lifted the trophy 12 times, west African teams have succeeded on 10 occasions and Orlando Pirates of South Africa are the only team from the southern region to go all the way.
Given the dominance of the north, it is no surprise that the other first leg pits five-time champions Zamalek of Egypt against one-time title-holders Wydad Casablanca of Morocco.
This match will be played in ancient Mediterranean city Alexandria on Friday with Zesco facing Sundowns in Zambian Copperbelt city Ndola the following afternoon.
|Champions League semi-finals first legs|
|Zamalek v Wydad Casablanca (Friday, 1800 GMT)|
|Zesco United v Mamelodi Sundowns (Saturday, 1330 GMT)|
No one outside of Zambia believed Zesco would reach the last-four stage as they only qualified for the group stage once before and were eliminated after finishing third.
An outstanding home record this season of five victories and a draw in qualifying and mini-league matches has taken United within one overall victory of becoming only the second Zambian finalists.
Nkana Red Devils reached the 1990 final when the competition was called the African Cup of Champions Clubs and lost on penalties to JS Kabylie of Algeria.
Another factor that has helped Zesco is having three consistent scorers in Democratic Republic of Congo-born Idris Mbombo, Kenyan Jesse Were and Zambian Clatous Chama.
Of 22 goals in 12 African outings, Mbombo has struck five and Were and Chama four each. Another Zambian, John Ching'andu, has scored three.
Only two Sundowns players have managed to score twice and one of them, Colombian striker Leonardo Castro, misses the tie through injury. The other is a defender, Wayne Arendse.
Zesco coach George Lwandamina is a man of few words and seemed irritated that Sundowns are favoured to reach the final.
"Sundowns are just a team like any other - remember that Zesco were not expected to get this far," he said.
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane was upset at having to play five domestic and Confederation of African Football fixtures within 14 days, starting last Sunday and ending with the second leg against Zesco next Saturday.
"I want my boys to reach the final against the odds. Let us soldier on. It is not impossible to defeat Zesco," he said.
Wydad, whose lone title came 24 years ago, will be wary of Zamalek having struggled against another Egyptian outfit, record eight-time African champions Al Ahly, in the group stage.
After forcing a 0-0 draw against Ahly at the same ground where they will confront Zamalek, Wydad suffered a shock 1-0 home defeat.
Moroccan Reda Hajhouj is desperate to rediscover his scoring touch. He averaged a goal a game in six qualifiers, but failed to increase that total in six group games.
Zamalek are another club longing for success with their last Champions League triumph coming 14 years ago against Raja, the bitter Casablanca rivals of Wydad.