Off-form Ahly to face on-song Raja in CAF Champions League
Off-form title-holders Al Ahly of Egypt were paired with in-form Raja Casablanca of Morocco on Tuesday when the CAF Champions League quarter-finals draw was made in Cairo.
Finishing runners-up behind Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa in Group A meant record 10-time champions Ahly were going to face a difficult last-eight assignment during April.
The options were Raja, Casablanca neighbours Wydad, or Esperance of Tunisia, all multiple former winners of the marquee African club competition.
Ahly were first out of the bowl in a draw conducted by CAF officials with assistance from former Esperance coach Mouine Chaabani, who guided the Tunis club to the 2018 and 2019 Champions League titles.
Next came Raja, who are hoping to end a 23-year drought in the competition after being crowned champions in 1989, 1997 and 1999, each time after a penalty shootout.
Coached by South African Pitso Mosimane and captained by goalkeeper Mohamed el Shenawy, Ahly are hunting a record third straight title in the 58-year competition.
But the Mohamed Sherif-led Cairo Red Devils attack lacked firepower in the group stage, failing to score in two matches against Sundowns and one against Al Hilal of Sudan.
Raja won seven of eight qualifying and group matches with the sole slip-up a 2-1 away loss to Horoya of Guinea in Conakry.
The Green Eagles have impressed despite losing star forwards Sofiane Rahimi and Democratic Republic of Congo-born Ben Malango to Middle East clubs offering much bigger monthly salaries.
- Blazed wide -
Ahly pipped Raja 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw when they met in the annual CAF Super Cup match last December in Qatar with a string of superbly struck spot-kicks ending when a Moroccan blazed wide.
North African sides have dominated the Champions League lately with Ahly, Esperance (twice each) and Wydad winning the last five editions after Sundowns triumphed in 2016.
The odds favour a continuation of the trend as three of the semi-finalists will come from the north after the two southern sides, Sundowns and Angolan outfit Petro Luanda, were paired.
Sundowns edged Petro on penalties in a 2001 semi-final, but the impressive South Africans will expect to make a less anxious passage to the penultimate round this time.
Wydad fired a warning to the other contenders last weekend by crushing Petro 5-1 to win Group D and are set to overcome Algerian opponents Chabab Belouizdad.
The other Algerian hopefuls, two-time champions Entente Setif, have reached the knockout stage despite losing five of 10 matches, and defensively-formidable opponents Esperance look stronger.
Al Ahly (EGY, holders) v Raja Casablanca (MAR)
Entente Setif (ALG) v Esperance (TUN)
Chabab Belouizdad (ALG) v Wydad Casablanca (MAR)
Petro Luanda (ANG) v Mamelodi Sundowns (RSA)
First legs: April 15-16; second legs: April 22-23
Ahly or Raja v Setif or Esperance
Petro or Sundowns v Belouizdad or Wydad
First legs: May 6-7; second legs: May 13-14
Note: Single-match final will be played between May 22 and 29 at a venue to be announced