Sudanese club football giants Al Hilal try again Friday to break through the semi-finals ceiling that has thwarted numerous attempts to win a Pan-African competition. The Omdurman side host Malian outfit Djoliba in the first leg of Orange CAF Confederation Cup last-four tie, with the other fixture two days later in Congo Brazzaville between AC Leopards and Sudanese visitors Al Merreikh.
In the last five years, Hilal have been defeated in three CAF Champions League semi-finals and one CAF Confederation Cup semi-final, earning them a reputation of chokers. Hilal, a mix of Sudanese stars plus imports from Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe, finished runners-up in Group A behind Merreikh while Djoliba topped Group B followed by Leopards.
The Sudanese reached the last four under Franco-Italian coach Diego Garzitto by winning five matches, drawing two and losing one with two of the victories coming against another Malian side, CO Bamako, in a play-off. Zimbabwe striker Edward Sadomba has been the main source of goals with five, a year after finishing leading scorer in the more challenging CAF Champions League with seven goals.
Djoliba topped their section by winning home and away against 2011 CAF Champions League runners-up Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and 2009 CAF Confederation Cup winners and fellow Malians Stade Malien. Unlike multi-national Hilal, the Bamako club rely on Malian coaches and footballers with Alou Bagayoko (three) and Idrissa Traore (two) the chief contributors when it comes to goals.
Following two qualifying-phase exits from the Confederation Cup, Djoliba achieved their best showing two seasons ago, finishing third after winning 2-0 at home and losing 2-1 away to Hilal in a mini-league topped by the Sudanese. Leopards are the odd club among the semi-finalists, advancing through four qualifying rounds to the group phase, while Hilal, Djoliba and Merreikh were Champions League drop-outs having lost final round eliminators. The Congolese hope to carry on where they left off against Djoliba in western city Dolisie two weeks ago, winning 3-0 through goals from Bienvenu Kombo, Herman Lakolo and Rochel Kivouri.
Brazilian Ricardo Heron coaches Merreikh, who boast the only unbeaten record among the survivors with five wins and three draws, and veteran Egypt goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary is the best known of many stars.