Malian football club Djoliba hope to end a 45-year pursuit of Pan-African glory by winning the CAF Confederation Cup this month. They host Congolese outfit AC Leopards in Bamako Sunday with the second leg of the final seven days later in Dolisie with a $660,000 first prize up for grabs in the second-tier competition.
The sides know each other well having clashed twice in the group phase with Leopards forcing a 1-1 draw in Mali and winning 3-0 in Congo to finish Group B runners-up behind Djoliba.
Alou Bagayoko cancelled the early lead Rudy Guelord Bhebey-Ndey gave Leopards in Bamako and goals from Bienvenu Kombo, Herman Lakolo and Rochel Kivouri earned maximum points for the central Africans second time round.
Those results suggest Leopards are favourites to become the first Congolese winners of the nine-year competition that replaced the African Cup Winners Cup and CAF Cup competitions. But Malians believe Djoliba have waited long enough to lift a CAF trophy and expect them to establish a winning lead in the capital of the landlocked, largely desert west African nation.
Djoliba made their Pan-African debut in 1967, defeating Guinean club Conakry II before losing to Asante Kotoko of Ghana in a semi-final of the Champions Cup -- forerunner to the CAF Champions League. That is the closest the Malians came to gripping a trophy until this year when they dropped down to the Confederation Cup after losing narrowly to Nigerian side Sunshine Stars in a Champions League final-round qualifier.
They pipped 2011 Confederation Cup runners-up Club Africain from Tunisia in a play-off and topped a group with Leopards second, Wydad Casablanca of Morocco third and another Malian team, Stade Malien, bottom of the table.
Tradition is against Djoliba as no Champions League 'drop out' has won a final against opponents who came through the qualifying rounds of the Confederation Cup. Leopards can also draw comfort from the fact that the last two winners of the competition -- Moroccan clubs FUS Rabat and Moghreb Fes -- fought their way to glory from the preliminary round of the secondary competition.
The Congolese have followed a similar path, eliminating Tempete Mocaf of the Central African Republic, twice title holders CS Sfaxien of Tunisia, Heartland of Nigeria and Moghreb to reach the mini-league phase.
Both finalists knocked out Sudanese sides in the penultimate stage, Djoliba overcoming Al Hilal after a penalty shootout while Leopards held Al Merreikh in Omdurman after taking a narrow first leg advantage.
Djoliba hope Bagayoko, Idrissa Traore and Janvier Abouta can break a Leoaprds defence in which goalkeeper Lutunu Doule from the Democratic Republic of Congo has been consistently outstanding.
Cesaire Gandze poses a threat to the Malian defence and scored a cheeky semi-final opener against Merreikh, poking the ball into the net as veteran Egypt goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary was caught napping while bouncing the ball.