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CAF Champions League 2019-20 Semi-final Preview: Raja Casablanca (MAR) vs Zamalek (EGY)

The return of the CAF Champions League continues with the second semi-final 1st leg between Zamalek and Raja Casablanca in Morocco. Raja are coming off their triumph in the league season, winning the 2019-20 Botola in dramatic fashion. A squad personified by discipline and toughness, Raja will be a stingy opponent.

Zamalek have had a disappointing season, and will be laying it all on the line to potentially upstage rivals Al Ahly. The team appears to have stabilized and found some rhythm since hiring coach Jaime Pacheco, but will need to stay focused against the Moroccan champions. Here is Pan-Africa Football’s preview of the second semi-final:

Raja Casablanca

Center-back Badr Banoun has seen his star rise with Raja. He will be joining top Egyptian club Al Ahly after the tournament.

Path to the Semi-Finals

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Expected formation and team profile

In contrast to every other team in the semi-final group, Raja have enjoyed a lengthy period of stability coming into this match. Former Raja player and Moroccan international Jamal Sellami led the club to glory this season by clinching the Botola title with a last-minute winner against FUS Rabat. Raja have not dominated their opponents with flashy attacking, but by maintaining tactical discipline and coming up with goals when it matters most. Only their opponents, Zamalek, scored fewer goals of the teams that advanced out of the group stage, but Raja conceded only four goals in those six matches. Raja is built for a tournament format like this, but the margin for error will be thin at this level.

One question mark for Raja’s airtight defense is the availability of Libyan international Sanad Al Warfali. Al Warfali and Badr Banoun have formed one of the most solid center-back partnerships in African football, but if Al Warfali cannot go, Ilias Haddad, a Dutch-born defender with European experience, will likely step in. Omar Arjoun is guaranteed a starting spot in midfield to bring tough tackling and discipline in front of the back four and will partner two-way Congolese international, Luamba Ngoma. The weakness for Raja may be with their full-backs. Cameroonian Fabrice Ngah has been inconsistent at left-back, and a committee approach on the opposite flank means the wide attackers will be doing their fair share of tracking back.

The attack revolves around the creativity and experience of Mohsine Moutouali. The 33-year-old former Moroccan international starts on the right flank, but likes to drift around and find pockets to initiate attacks. Soufiane Rahimi has found success playing in several attacking positions, and will likely line up at the striker role up top. Raja received a much needed boost this season due to Abdeliliah Hafidi finding his form following his recovery from a long-term injury. The hero of the Botola season finale, he will need to offer playmaking ability to complement the steady play of Moutouali. Attack isn’t Raja’s strong point, but is an area that has improved over the course of the season and is capable of making a difference on their day.

Zamalek

Can Mostafa Mohamed provide the goalscoring Zamalek needs to progress to the final?

Path to the Semi-Finals

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Expected formation and team profile

Zamalek have not been firing on all cylinders at any point this season. The defense and midfield have stayed well organized, but previous manager Patrice Carteron failed to find a way to keep the goals flowing. Carteron’s controversial and sudden departure from Zamalek for Saudi football a month ago has only added to the drama of the club’s season. Star midfielder Ferjani Sassi’s health in the buildup to the match is still a mystery, with the news that he would travel only coming after conflicting reports from the club and player himself regarding his Covid-19 test results. Leading scorer Mostafa Mohamed has publicly expressed his willingness to leave for Europe among interest from several countries. Recently appointed Portuguese manager Jaime Pacheco, however, is accustomed to the hazards of managing Zamalek, having a previous stint at the club in 2014. Pacheco is undefeated in his first four matches since taking charge and looks to have succeeded in bringing stability to the club.

The one area Zamalek has improved upon this season is keeping goals out. Veteran holding midfielders Tarek Hamed and Ferjani Sassi will bring bite and composure in front of a back four that has been fairly good. Mahmoud Alaa has not only been Zamalek’s most ever-present defender, but his ability in the air and on penalty kicks has led to him being the most prolific scorer for the club. Vice-captain Hazem Emam is a veteran presence at right back who will not be available. 19 year-old Ahmed Eid has shown potential, but Pacheco may go with creative midfielder Youssef Obama or center-back Mohamed Abdelghani, who each have limited experience at right-back. Otherwise, organization and experience is a strength for the defense in front of veteran goalkeeper Mohamed Abou Gamal, who goes by the nickname “Gabaski”.

Attack is where the issues have come for Zamalek. Mostafa Mohamed is a pure goalscorer who brings the combination of size and quickness to attack crosses or latch on to balls behind the defense, but service has been lacking. Of the players likely to play in the three-man line behind Mohamed, Moroccan international winger Ashraf Bencharki has an element of unpredictability that can be the difference for Zamalek. Two out of the group of Youssef Obama, Zizo, and Mohamed Ounajem will join Bencharki as the creative sources, with all capable of making a difference when in good form. The attacking talent is there, but it has been a struggle to get everybody on the same page as a unit.

Prediction

This one is particularly tough to call. Zamalek has the edge when it comes to talent, and is showing signs of cohesion. Raja is steady, but a couple of injury doubts makes their defense a little less dominant. Zamalek gets the nod because they possess more proven difference makers in the attack.

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