“When Europeans began to imagine Africa beyond the Sahara, the continent they pictured was a dreamscape, a site for fantasies of the fearsome and supernatural.”
Thus wrote Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost, his harrowing account about the colonisation of Congo. The Europeans may not have had football on their mind in their visualisation of Africa beyond the Sahara, but the upcoming TP Mazembe v Al Ahly clash has the dish of the fearsome and a side order of the supernatural. Certainly, watching TP Mazembe on their own turf spurred on by exultant fans is such an otherwordly ordeal that one could argue it is proof that time travel exists. Stade TP stadium is always rocking; the crowd so palpably close to the pitch that one can be excused of thinking health and safety regulations are being breached. The mystery of the whole team – typified by Tresor Mputu – is hypnotically engaging, and as long as coverage of African football doesn’t improve it will never fade.
Al Ahly and TP Mazembe. These are the two mightiest forces the continent has to offer. This is the CAF Champions League 2012 final in nature if not name; the final before the final; and your unconditional offer to delve into the murkiness of African football if you haven’t done so already.
The intra-continental and international context
There’s a rivalry here. Al Ahly are not only the flagbearers for the Maghreb, but Africa’s undisputed heavyweight champion with 6 CAF Champions League titles to their name. TP Mazembe, meanwhile, boast 4 of their own and are seen by many as the official Pride of Sub-Sahara. This rivalry has the obvious geographic tension, then, thus intra-continental pride is at stake.
TP Mazembe are the archetypical Sub Saharan team; the football played is a thrilling throwback to the sub-Sahara teams of the past, combining break-necking pace and instinctive – sometimes over-elaborate – flair, with the added twist of penetration from all angles. Stereotypically damningly, the team lacks a regista who can dictate the pace of games, which can make them struggle to establish control on away trips. Still, the deficiency seems almost redundant when one looks at the bigger picture; after all, TP Mazembe have flourished in the CAF Champions League through obtaining a PhD in Swift Attacking Football, winning Africa’s premier competition in 2009 and retaining it a year later. The chance to go for a hat-trick in the 2011 was denied after they were knocked out of the competition for fielding an ineligible player in the preliminaries. Club success has morphed into international success, firstly with DR Congo winning the 2009 Africa Nations Championship (which differs from the Cup of Nations in that it only involves players who ply their trade domestically), and then a phalanx of Zambian players who lifted the Africa Cup of Nations earier this year in their armoury.
Al Ahly make TP Mazembe’s achievements pale in comparison. The relentless success of Al Ahly in the 2000s was essentially simultaneous with that of the Egypt national side; both brilliantly combining style and substance inasmuch as moistening the eyes. The Total Football ingredients of spatial awareness, continual movement and collective coherency were the modus operandi, sweeping aside European household names-filled squads like turds on the Hollywood Walk of Fame despite having a squad of predominantly locally-based players. Although the national team has crumbled and ultimately failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cups and two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, there are still some firm crumbs in the Al Ahly-Egypt pipeline with the likes of Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat intent on planting a smile back on the faces of the Egyptian people, generally-speaking, after a turbulent two years.
The Status Quo
It’s a near must-win game for TP Mazembe, who are three points behind Al Ahly, otherwise an awkward-looking away trip to dogged Ghanaian grafters Berekum Chelsea , who lie two points behind them, awaits where they would need a result. Ahly will want to at least avoid defeat as a point is enough to confirm their passage into the semi-finals. Their final match sees them facing bitter rivals Zamalek, who may be out of the competition but if Al Ahly were to lose they will do everything within their dwindling capabilities to make sure they don’t have an easy tie in the semi-finals.
Both teams will want to avoid facing the blood and gold of Esperance, the defending champions, who have catwalked through group A with raucously laughable ease and look one of the most well-structured sides in the tournament, and would rather settle for a tie with Nigerian minnows Sunshine Stars. (That said, TP Mazembe may not mind facing Esperance again, they mutilated them 5-0 two years ago, although that was in their old stadium, for what it’s worth.)
The Tactical Battle
If anything, the 2-1 Al Ahly win in the first meeting should have been more comfortable: the injury-time winner by Gedo may have given the impression that it was a close affair to the casual score-checker, but it was anything but.
TP Mazembe’s weakness is their defence, and their full-backs buccaneering forward can leave suicidal gaps which Hossam Al Badry’s side exploited to devastating effect in the previous meeting. Even when Mazembe were behind the ball, the movement of Walid Soliman, Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat in particular gave their defenders the nauseating dilemma of whether to drop into midfield with them or to maintain their position, and left the midfielders – “What midfield?” Those who watched the game may ask – in front of them chasing empty space. Fortunately for Mazembe, they’ll be spared the wits of Barakat, who has accumulated enough yellows for a ban to suffice, and the effervescent Soliman is nursing a calf injury.
Mazembe coach Lamine N’Diaye opted for a cautious 4-5-1 formation in their previous meeting, with Tresor Mputu leading the line and Rainford Kalaba lurking just behind him. Whilst it would be simplistic to say Mputu was isolated, an argument could be made that they didn’t get the best out of him. Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samata plays the role of spearheading the attack much better with his me-against-the-world runs at the heart of defences , whilst Mputu is more suited to drifting around from flank to flank. Certainly, the introduction of Samata in the second half of that match saw an upturn in Mazembe’s fortunes as he went on to score the equaliser. With the match on home territory and a win crucial, Mazembe will undoubtedly be more proactive on this occasion.
Tresor Mputu (TP Mazembe)
When the debate of the best African player plying their trade in Africa arises, the standard answer is Mohamed Aboutrika. But in the obscenely talented Tresor Mputu, who is the all-time top scorer in CAF club competition with 41 goals, there is a mischievously efficient adversary to Aboutrika’s affability and good nature. Banned for the majority of last year for a karate kick on a referee, the controversial forward is in hot form with 14 goals and 10 assists in his last 23 games. His productivity and ability to dupe defenders with all manners of deception could prove to be match-winning.
Hossam Ghaly (Al Ahly)
After infamously throwing his shirt to the ground, Ghaly left Tottenham expressing frustration at being unable to play in central midfield. On the basis of his consistently good performances for the Egypt national team and Al Ahly over the last year or so in that position, he may have had a point. His all-round midfield play is vital for the structural balance of Al Ahly, and he will be pivotal in play-breaking and feeding neat balls to the attacking players, particularly when the chance to counter-attack arises.
TP Mazembe have only lost once in their last 25 home games in the CL. For all the quality in their ranks, Al Ahly have an eye-wincingly poor away record for a side of their calibre – only 3 wins in 27 CL away games since 2008. 2-0 to the Ravens.