The African Champions League, the real Champions League, quarter finals this weekend. Here, Salim Masoud Said profiles 5 players that have impressed so far and that you should keep your eye on for these latter stages.
Mohamed Ounajem | Wydad Casablanca
In a Wydad Casablanca side that is known for its machine-like modus operandi rather than the aesthetics, Ounajem is easily the most eye-catching player. It is Ounajem’s quick feet and explosive dribbling that gets fans at the Mohamed V stadium on the edge of their seats, otherwise watching Wydad would be a 90-minute affair of watching the Curva. The 25-year-old’s lightweight body and enigmatic performances has raised doubts whether he has the ability to play at a higher level, but when he is in full flight on a good day he is an invaluable player.
The doubts about his athleticism hasn’t stopped national recognition: he has been one of a handful of domestic-based players that have forged their way into Herve Renard’s Morocco national squad. And though he’s not a key component of the national team, and is yet to make his debut, it is an acknowledgement of his quality by a coach that, above all, values fitness. For Ounajem, these latter stages are a chance to raise his profile; out of Morocco only the most ardent, African football-watching fan will know him. Against the reigning champions Mamelodi Sundowns seems like a good time to start promoting himself.
Mohamed Amine Ben Amor | Etoile
In many ways, Ben Amor typifies Tunisian football. Constantly shining in the most understated of ways, but never receiving much adulation because of his lack of stardust; he is an efficient footballer that doesn’t shine in a GIF. He was excellent at AFCON 2017 and has been just as reliable in this year’s CL campaign for Etoile. Arguably Tunisia’s most consistent player over the last 2 years, Ben Amor is just as important for quarter finalists Etoile du Sahel and just as understated because of his no-frills football.
The lack of glamour to his game means flashier players outshine him, even if they are less consistent and, in the grand scheme of things, less decisive. A survivor of Etoile’s glorious 2015 CAF Confederation Cup campaign, his endurance, willingness to cover ground box to box and level of performance in big games will make him a crucial player.
Denis Onyango | Mamelodi Sundowns
With his closest contenders – namely Vincent Enyeama and Kossi Agassi – fading for one reason or another, the path to being Africa’s premier goalkeeper has opened up for Onyango. And he has only soared higher. The Ugandan’s performances in Mamelodi Sundowns CL-winning campaign last year saw him named as the best Africa-based goalkeeper.
With Pitso Masimane’s side not as prolific as last year, Onyango will have to be at his very best again if Sundowns are to retain their title. The good news for Mamelodi Sundowns is his recent displays, especially in the double-header against Egypt, showed that he hasn’t reached his peak yet; at 32, he is still improving as a goalkeeper. As Egypt recently found out, he will take some beating.
Saleh Gomaa | Al Ahly
Gomaa was the outstanding player as Egypt won AFCON U20 in 2013. Indeed, CAF named him the official player of the tournament; CAF rarely get these things right, but even they couldn’t get this one wrong. Since then Gomaa has looked more like an Egyptian Jack Wishere than the heir to Mohamed Aboutrika, with questions about his professionalism and fitness issues halting the ascent of his career as the years have flown by.
Now 24, refocusing this year has naturally seen an upturn in his form and it has led to a recall to the national team after a long absence. He is now not only showing the artistry to his game, breaking the lines with burst from midfield, but also adding goals with Al Ahly. Replicating such form for the CL record holders in these latter stages could see force his way into an Egypt starting XI that could do with goals, poise and creativity, particularly if they achieve their goal of qualifying for the World Cup.
Muaid Ellafi | Al-Ahli Tripoli
It’s fair to say Muiad Ellafi has been the revelation of the campaign. The 21-year-old is currently the top goalscorer out of the players remaining in the tournament with 6 goals to his name, and only needs one more to equal Salahedine Said overall. It’s easy to see why the attacking midfielder has scored so many despite not playing as a centre forward, the shortfalls of experience and playing for Al Ahli Tripoli, an unfancied Libyan side that has had to play their home games in Sfax in Tunisia because of the ongoing conflict. Ellafi’s alertness in and around the area often catches opponents by surprise. What’s particularly impressive is his control of chances – he seems to be fully in control of situations when he’s about to finish, even if his blistering speed suggests otherwise.
With Etoile to conquer, then Esperance or Al Ahly awaiting in the semi-final, we’re unlikely to see Ellafi tugging his team to glory, but if they do cause a tremor Ellafi is likely to star.