Never has the CAF Champions League hosted a group like this year’s Group B. Three clubs from one country have qualified for the group stages for the very first time, and all three clubs have been drawn into the same bracket of four. Algeria’s USM Alger, ES Setif, and MC El Eulma will face off against one another and Sudanese side Al-Merreikh.
USM Alger are unique in Algeria. The club is one of a few that is privately owned. The Haddad family, one of Algeria’s richest families, invests heavily into infrastructure and star personnel. The purchase of Youcef Belaïli last summer is an example of USMA’s spending power. After leaving Algeria for African giants ES Tunis at the age of nineteen, Belaïli rescinded his contract and returned to the nation’s capital as the highest paid Algerian in history. The rest of USMA’s squad are immensely experienced and talented: nine of the eleven habitual starters have been capped for Algeria and the core of this team have played together for several years now. One glaring handicap Haddad’s men face is that they have failed to hire a coach. Otto Pfister was fired at the end of last season and Ouled El-Bahdja are yet to replace him. A three-man interim of Mounir Zeghdoud, Hadj Adlene, and Mahieddine Meftah will oversee USM Alger’s first match in Setif on Saturday.
by Maher Mezahi
ES Setif are not only the competition’s defending champions, they also enter this year’s Champions League campaign as champions of the Algerian championship, and the continent’s Supercup holders. Setif’s three trophies in twelve months have inculcated a winning culture that sees them enter this year’s tournament as one of the favourites. Algerian coach Kheireddine Madoui is to be credited for his team management. ESS do not have the individual firepower of some of the clubs in this competition, but Madoui’s psychological preparations has seen the Black and White snatch improbable results from some of Africa’s toughest battle grounds. Unfortunately, a mini-exodus of sorts is currently taking place in the High Plateaus. Captain Farid Mellouli and his partner in the heart of defence, Abdelghani Demou, have left the club, as has Gabonese utility man Benjamin Ze Ondo and gritty defensive midfielder Mohamed Lagraa. Setif’s know-how should nevertheless help them progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
by Maher Mezahi
MC El Eulma
Though it is extremely rare, MC El Eulma are not the only club to have been relegated and still contest the Champions League group stages.. Neighbours ES Setif won their first Champions League in 1989 from Algeria’s second division. It would be highly improbable to see MCEE repeat the feat, but that does not make them Group B pushovers. Though they were relegated, El Eulma boasted the Algerian championship’s second-best home record. Babia also boasted the best attack in Algeria, and they have managed to hold on to several talented attacking players. Striker Fares Hamiti has Champions League experience with JS Kabylie in 2010, winger Abdelmalek Abbes led the 2014/15 Algerian championship in assists with nine, and his opposite flankman Ibrahim Chenihi is quite probably the best domestic player Algeria has produced since Islam Slimani. Chenihi is a regular in the national team set-up and, should he leave El Eulma, it would only be for a move across the Mediterranean. There are still question marks, however, about new manager Abdelkader Hajjar who is about to embark on his first ever professional coaching experience.
by Maher Mezahi
The only Sudanese team to have picked up continental silverware winning the African Cup of Champions in 1989, Al Merreikh make their second official CAF Champions’ League group stage appearance this year. Drawn amongst the 3 Algerian clubs, the Sudanese side face a tough challenge in progressing to the next stage. However Al Merriekh this year have proved they are a strong coherent side eliminating the likes of Esperance and Kabuscorp SC in the preliminary rounds. Key players include Bakri Al Madina who cost the club around half a million dollars signed from bitter rivals Al Hilal. The ‘scorpion’ as fans like to call him has played an integral part in Al Merriekh’s run this year. ‘Al Zaem’ has also signed 2 new Ivorian players – Striker Didier Libre and centre-back Mohamed Sylla who Garzitto will use to tighten his defence. Diego Garzitto will be hoping to win this trophy again with Al Merreikh after winning it in 2009 with TP Mazembe.
by Abdul Musa