27 October 2017

Africa: Moroccan Finishers Poised for Final Showdown

analysis

Egypt's Al Ahly and Wydad Casablanca of Morocco won through to the final of the 2017 CAF Champions League with respective defeats of Etoile Sportive du Sahel and USM Alger in the semis. Two players who contributed much to those victories were Moroccan forwards Walid Azaro and Achraf Bencharki, the former scoring a hat-trick in Al Ahly's second-leg demolition of Etoile and the latter a brace as Wydad overcame USM. Both sides will be hoping their star strikers can stay in among the goals and propel them to the continental title and a place at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2017.

Fact file

Name: Walid Azaro

Age: 22

Nationality: Moroccan

Position: Forward

First club: Adrar Souss

Height: 6'1 (1.86m)

Azaro was born in the coastal city of Agadir. He began his career with Adrar Souss before joining El Jadida in 2015, making 66 appearances for the club in the next two years and scoring 30 goals. His exploits in the Moroccan league prompted Al Ahly to make him a lucrative offer, one he accepted.

Criticised by the Al Ahly fans for some wayward finishing in his first few games with the club, Azaro soon began to find his feet and the back of the net, scoring in the first leg of the quarter-final against Esperance de Tunis and then helping himself to a that hat-trick against Etoile.

Speaking after his tie-winning efforts against Etoile, he said: "I'd like to thank my team-mates and the fans, who've been cheering me on the whole time. It's only been a question of time because I've been feeling so motivated. I've finally been able to find the target and score a hat-trick.

"We were focused right the way through the match and made the most of our chances to kick on and win the game."

Making like Maaloul

Azaro's Tunisian team-mate Ali Maaloul also made a telling contribution to Al Ahly's wins over Esperance and Etoile, scoring in both ties. If the two north Africans can keep the goals coming, the Egyptian club will fancy their chances against Wydad.

Fact file

Name: Achraf Bencharki

Age: 23

Nationality: Moroccan

Position: Forward

First club: MAS Fes

Height: 6'0 (1.82m)

Bencharki scored a hat-trick for MAS against Hassania Agadir before signing for Wydad. He has since become something of a talisman for the Casablanca club, who struggled when he was suspended for the first leg of their quarter-final against South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns, a match the Moroccan club lost 1-0.

At the double against USM

Under pressure following the goalless draw at USM in the first leg of the semis, Wydad's nerves were soothed when Bencharki put them 2-0 ahead on aggregate with a fine header. The Moroccan striker then settled the tie with a powerful drive in injury time.

"We won this match because of my team-mates, who really stood up and showed what they're made of," said the two-goal hero afterwards. "We can't forget the fans either. They kept pushing us on right to the last minute.

"Our minds were on the job from start to finish. We made it through to the final despite Amine Atouchi being sent off. We're absolutely delighted."

Giving his response to his side's defeat, USM coach Paul Put hailed Bencharki's performance: "He made the difference. He's the reason we lost."

The stat

4 - the number of goals Azaro and Bencharki have each scored in this year's Champions League. They will both need to score four more in the final if they are to overtake the competition's current leading marksmen: Taha Yassine Khenissi of Esperance and Saladin Said of Saint George, who each have seven goals.

Eyes on the prize

With their semi-final exploits now behind them, Azaro and Bencharki are focusing on nothing but the two-legged final, with the winners advancing to December's Club World Cup.

As far as Azaro is concerned, the best is yet to come: "We haven't shown anything yet and the final is only the start. We need to forget the last match and focus on the next one."

Aware that the task will not be easy against Bencharki and Co, the Moroccan added: "You don't get to the final without being a good side and it's going to be very tight. Like I said, we need to move on from the semi and work hard if we want to lift the trophy."

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