Hopes are high in Congo Brazzaville that AC Leopards can lift the CAF Confederation Cup Sunday and end a 38-year club trophy drought for the central African country.
CARA won the 1974 African Champions Cup -- forerunner to the CAF Champions League -- with victory against Egyptian outfit Al Mehalla in the home-and-away final. But no Congolese side has come close to glory since until Leopards from western city Dolisie reached the final of the second-tier Pan-African club competition this season.
A 2-2 draw away to Malian side Djoliba last weekend in the first leg of the decider has thrust the mantle of favourites on to Leopards, who were outsiders when the annual competition kicked off last February. Although founded in 1954, Leopards did not qualify for Africa until two years ago and a couple of Confederation Cup challenges petered out at the last-32 stage.
Djoliba have been trying without success since 1967 to capture Pan-African silverware, coming closest by reaching the Champions Cup semi-finals once and the last four of the now defunct African Cup Winners Cup twice.
The finalists know each other well having also met in the mini-league phase with Leopards drawing 1-1 away and winning 3-0 at home to clinch a semi-finals place as Group B runners-up behind Djoliba. While another three-goal romp is unlikely at the 20,000-capacity Stade Denis Sassou Nguesso, a Confederation Cup home record of six wins, a draw, a loss and a 14-5 goal tally confirms Leopards are a force to reckon with in Dolisie.
Because Djoliba were among eight Champions League 'drop outs' after the qualifiers, they had six fewer Confederation Cup outings than Leopards, winning two on the road and losing three with a 4-8 goal record.
The first leg of a final offering the winners $660,000 and a CAF Super Cup title at Champions League winners Al Ahly of Egypt was a thriller with the Congolese leading and trailing before snatching a dramatic draw. Rochel-Fernand Kivouri nudged the visitors ahead, Alou Bagayoko levelled from the penalty spot, Salif Coulibaly scored a second Djoliba goal and Seda-Heritier Ngouelou equalised three minutes from time.
There is no shortage of potential scorers in either side with Leopards' 25 goals in 17 outings coming from 12 sources with Rudy Guelord Bhebey-Ndey and Eric Nyemba (four each) the chief contributors. Bagayoko tops the Djoliba scorers' chart with four of the 15 goals in 11 matches followed by Idrissa Traore with three for a club whose title is the local language name for the Niger river that flows through Bamako.
Home advantage and partisan support from a sell-out crowd are obvious factors favouring Leopards, but tradition offers Djoliba hope of emulating domestic neighbours and 2009 Confederation Cup winners Stade Malien.
There have been four first leg draws in the eight years of a competition that replaced the Cup Winners Cup and CAf Cup competitions, and three of the teams held at home in the initial match went on to lift the trophy.