Esperance of Tunisia will create a record for the longest unbeaten CAF Champions League run if they avoid defeat Friday at ASO Chlef of Algeria. The 'Blood and Gold' have not lost in 19 matches since going down 2-0 away to ASPAC of Benin last year and drew level with previous record holders Al Ahly of Egypt thanks to a 1-0 win over Nigerian visitors Sunshine Stars two weeks ago. They could have surpassed Ahly already with home and away victories over fellow Tunisians Etoile Sahel, but the club from Mediterranean resort Sousse were disqualified because of crowd trouble, and their results cancelled.
Defending champions Esperance and record six-time winners Ahly created the 19-match unbeaten runs in virtually identical fashion with 12 wins, seven draws and a plus-27 goal difference each, but the Tunisians scored four more. Ahly produced the record between the 2004 and 2006 Champions League seasons, beginning with a 0-0 draw at Al Hilal of Sudan, and the run ended with a 1-0 defeat at CS Sfaxien of Tunisia.
Now Group A winners Esperance are poised to overtake the 'Red Devils' away to a Chlef side that have lost all three mini-league fixtures, including a 3-2 defeat at the Rades home of the Tunisians. It was a match that almost delivered a shock result with the Algerians coming from behind to lead 2-1 with three minutes left before goals from Khaled Mouelhi and Cameroonian Yannick Ndjeng dashed the visitors' hopes.
Esperance go into the Chlef fixture battle hardened as the national league draws to a close and they lead by one point from CA Bizertin with four rounds left in one of the most competitive championships on the continent. Chlef, whose qualifying victims included 1973 African champions Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of Congo and formidable continental campaigners Hilal, started their national league campaign only last weekend and won narrowly.
While Esperance will be joined in the semi-finals by second-place Sunshine Stars, Group B qualifiers TP Mazembe of DR Congo and Ahly go into match day 6 level on 10 points in the chase to top the table. Victory for four-time champions Mazembe away to Berekum Chelsea of Ghana Sunday would guarantee first place on head-to-head records even if Ahly complete a double over century-old Cairo rivals Zamalek in a simultaneous kick-off.
Mazembe surrendered a two-goal advantage earned through a brace from captain and midfielder Tresor Mputu when held by Chelsea in Lubumbashi, but have beaten Zamalek home and away and Ahly at home since. Apart from the inspirational Mputu, who has scored an unrivalled 42 goals in CAF club competitions, Chelsea should be wary of Mbwana Samata with the Tanzania-born midfielder scoring in four of the five mini-league match days. Ahly must do without midfield maestro Mohamed Aboutrika as he has been banned for two months by the club after refusing to play in the Egyptian Super Cup last weekend for personal reasons. Coach Hossam al Badry will not risk defender Wael Gomaa and midfielder Ahmed Fathy because they are one yellow card each away from a two-match suspension, but strikers Emad Moteab and Brazilian Fabio Junior have overcome injuries.