Duels between North African teams traditionally generate great excitement and enthusiasm from players and fans, and the first leg of the 2017 CAF Champions League semi-final between USM Alger (Algeria) and Wydad Casablanca (Morocco) was no exception. The lack of goals during the match was counterbalanced by the raucous atmosphere, which is likely to be mirrored at Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca later this week.
Prior to the highly anticipated second leg in Morocco, FIFA.com spoke to USM's Belgian coach Paul Put. The Antwerp native, who has many years of African football experience, is hopeful of going all the way in the Champions League, but for that to happen his charges will have to secure a positive result in the return match, after initially drawing 0-0 in Algiers.
"Wydad are a good side, and they came to Algiers with the aim of getting a draw," said Put. "They didn't take any risks and played quite defensively. We knew their strengths and how difficult it was going to be playing on a bad pitch. I'm not looking for excuses, but a team trying to make things happen is at a disadvantage when the surface is poor. We dominated the match and tried to go for it, but we didn't create enough chances to win."
Put is full of confidence ahead of Friday's crunch encounter, and believes that his team can qualify for the final if they adopt the correct approach. "The return leg could well go in our favour. Away from home, you sometimes get more space, which leads to counter-attacks. In football, anything is possible. We mustn't concede a goal, and we'll need to wait patiently for our chances."
Moroccan football is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, with the national team on the verge of qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, and Wydad's fans are sure to turn up the heat in Casablanca.
"Morocco is known for its intense supporters, but we're accustomed to that type of atmosphere," said Put. "In our derby against MC Alger, the stadium was packed. When we played Zamalek, the atmosphere was electric. And we shouldn't forget the footballing rivalry that exists between Algeria and Morocco. We know it's going to be a tricky match to negotiate."
Put has already experienced a defeat in a major final with Burkina Faso. Is he destined to suffer the same fate with USM? "I dream of lifting the Champions League trophy with my players," admitted the European coach. "We first need to get to the final, though. All Algerians deserve this win, especially the club's fans and president, who's done some great work, and the players, who are focused on their target. Algeria loves football, and god willing, we'll make it to the final."
The recent draw for the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2017 paired whichever club eventually emerges victorious in Africa with Mexican side Pachuca. The winner of that game will face the Copa Libertadores holder, and potentially Real Madrid in the final after that. The road ahead is still long, but Put does not view it as an impossible dream.
"All coaches fantasise about taking on Real Madrid. It would be fantastic to get to that point, but we need to keep our feet on the ground. We have to first qualify for the final, and then we can start thinking about the trophy. After that, we'll be able to dream about the Club World Cup. In football, a coach needs to be ambitious."