With the first legs of the CAF Champions League semi-finals taking place this weekend, Sandals For Goalposts profiles the four clubs in with a chance of claiming Africa’s most prized club gong. We’ve looked at defending champions Esperance, continental heavyweights Al Ahly and Nigerian darkhorses Sunshine Stars. Here, we take a glance at the pride of sub-Saharan football: TP Mazembe.
Club: TP Mazembe
Country: DR Congo
CAF CL record:
Winners: 1967, 1968, 2009, 2010
Runners-up: 1969, 1970
The Status Quo
The 2009 and 2010 champions are looking for an unprecedented hat-trick of CAF Champions League titles after controversially being thrown out in last year’s edition for allegedly fielding ineligible player.
After beating Al Ahly to move into the final round of group stage fixtures as Group B leaders, the Ravens then lost to grafty Ghanaians Berekum Chelsea, relinquishing the chance to have the supposedly easier tie with Nigerian minnows Sunshine Stars in the semi-finals. Indeed, their mixture of an exposed defence and unsuitable tactics that had made them begin their group stage campaign cumbersomely in their opening two fixtures – a 2-1 defeat to Al Ahly, which should have been more comprehensive, and a 2-2 draw with Berekum Chelsea, in which they wasted a 2-goal lead – reared its ugly head again in that final group match in Berekum, a 1-0 loss rife with Sunday league defending.
Still, rather than lament on the shortcomings, the rhetoric coming out from the Mazembe camp has been far from negative. After all, they final get to meet their bête noire, and set an issue straight: it was Esperance who lodged a complaint to CAF that Mazembe had fielded defender Janvier Bokungu, who was allegedly still contracted to Esperance. CAF subsequently ejected TP Mazembe from the competition as they could not convince CAF that Bokungu had officially terminated his contract with Esperance before joining them. Earlier this year, FIFA ruled in TP Mazembe’s favour after examining the case. It was too little too late for a team who consider the CL to be the Holy Grail.
“We wanted to meet Esperance of Tunis this year. We are therefore very pleased that the results of the competition have answered our prayers,” Mazembe chairman Moise Katumbu stated in the immediate aftermath of the defeat to Berekum Chelsea. “We just hope the Confederation of African Football appoints referees worthy of running the two semi finals, which will be honouring African football. That’s it. And we have been preparing ourselves for some time.”
TP Mazembe play a 4-3-3 system where the modus operandi is a combination of break-necking pace and instinctive, productive flair of Tresor Mputu, Rainford Kalaba and Deo Kanda. Defensively, Mazembe are capable of brain-farts – they have a habit of over-committing too many players forward when they attack, and when these attacks fail it can leave them very vulnerable to counter-attacks and, with their full-backs having a penchant for a dash forward, their centre-backs exposed.
Coach Lamine N’Diaye hasn’t quite got the balance in midfield right – it’s a three-man midfield and he has tried a range of combinations, but it often seems to lack the adequate aggression for a continental powerhouse of Mazembe’s calibre, particularly away from home. Zambian centre-back Stophira Sunzu has played brilliantly as a defensive midfielder, but, often joined by two attacking-midfielders (in fairness, this can be beneficial as it gives Mazembe penetration from all angles) or players who don’t have the aggression or defensive discipline to play in a midfield three, it often leaves him with too much to do.
Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samata brilliantly leads the line with his me-against-the-world runs whilst Tresor Mputu and Deo Kanda lurk behind him with malevolent intent. The dynamism and intelligence of this triumvirate means creating chances is not a problem for Mazembe.
The obscenely talented Tresor Mputu, who is the all-time top scorer in CAF club competitions with 41 goals, has the productivity and ability to dupe defenders with all manners of deception. He loves a good twist-and-turner to loosen the muscles of the defenders he faces and often provides the telling cross or pass for Samata. He plays with that aura of absolute effortlessness which makes football look remarkably easy.
One to watch
Forget Yaya Toure, forget Didier Drogba, forget Younes Belhanda and all the other usual suspects for the African Footballer of the Year award. Assuming he wins the CL, a left-field choice may very well be Stophira Sunzu, who was include in the 32-man short-list for the award earlier this week. He would then add to the Cup of Nations, which he won in February with Zambia, marshalling Didier Drogba superbly on his way to scoring the winning spot-kick in the final. With Mazembe, he has also been deployed as a defensive midfielder to good effect.
TP Mazembe have only lost once in their last 26 home games in the CL. If any team can make the record less impressive, it’s Esperance. Still, the Tunisians have rarely been tested by a side of TP Mazembe’s strikeforce and it’s difficult to envisage them winning the game. 2-1 to the Ravens.