Democratic Republic of Congo club TP Mazembe will defend a 1-0 lead at Stade Gabesien of Tunisia today as they seek to avoid two African eliminations in as many months.
The star-stacked outfit from mining city Lubumbashi were knocked out of the CAF Champions League in the final qualifying round by Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in April. Defeat meant demotion to the play-off stage in the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup, the African equivalent of the UEFA Europa League.
Paired with African rookies Gabesien, who qualified only because Tunisian Cup winners Etoile Sahel secured a Champions League slot, Mazembe struggled to convert chances at home.
It took 94 minutes before Jonathan Bolingi broke the deadlock and gave the Congolese Ravens the slimmest of advantages ahead of the second leg in coastal city Gabes.
France-born Mazembe coach Hubert Velud believes his mix of Congolese, Ghanaian, Ivorian, Malian, Tanzanian and Zambian stars can survive at the 15 000-capacity Stade Municipal.
“Although we converted only one of many scoring opportunities, it was very important that we did not concede at home,” the 56-year-old handler told Congolese reporters.
“It is going to be a very difficult assignment for us in Tunisia with the home crowd urging on their heroes.
“But Gabesien have to attack because unless they score they are out of the competition. That should create space for us to exploit.
“My players are familiar with this situation of defending a narrow lead and I am confident Mazembe will survive.”
Scoring regularly has been a problem for Mazembe since the departure of Tanzanian star striker Mbwana Aly Samatta to Belgium after they won the 2015 CAF Champions League.
Gabesien have no such concerns with giant Hichem ‘The Hulk’ Essifi and Ahmed Hosny scoring three goals each in Confederation Cup qualifying.
Etoile Sahel and Esperance of Tunisia are other big clubs seeking play-off success and places in the eight-club group draw scheduled for Cairo on May 24.
The silver lining for Etoile after becoming another Champions League demotee is that they get a chance to defend the title they won last year by edging Orlando Pirates of South Africa.
Etoile, the only winners of all five CAF club competitions, are experts at defending a lead and it would be a shock if they came unstuck in Libreville.
Esperance, winners of every CAF competition except the Confederation Cup, are also favourably positioned playing at home having held Mouloudia Bejaia 0-0 in Algeria.
Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa visit Ghana with a 3-1 lead over Medeama thanks to three goals in seven minutes from Zimbabweans Khama Billiat and Cuthbert Malajila and Colombian Leonardo Castro.
Young Africans of Tanzania are another visiting club holding a two-goal lead, and they are even better placed than Sundowns, having not conceded at home in a 2-0 win over Angolans Sagrada Esperanca.
Misr Elmaqasah of Egypt host Al Ahly Tripoli of Libya and FUS Rabat of Morocco are at home to Stade Malien of Mali after goalless first legs.
Al Merrikh, the only Sudanese club to win a CAF competition, takes a 1-0 advantage over Kawkab Marrakech to Morocco.