Zamalek Take First-Leg Lead in CAF Champions League Semi-Final

Achraf Bencharki headed in the only goal as Zamalek defeated hosts Raja Casablanca in the first leg of the second semi-final of the 2019/20 CAF Champions League.

The Moroccan international winger stunned the hosts in the 18th minute at an empty Stade Mohamed V, heading home a fine cross from Ahmed Sayed Zizo’s cross. It was the 25-year-old’s seventh goal on his seventh appearance in the competition this season. The goal was doubly painful for the hosts as Bencharki was a former star at bitter rivals Wydad Casablanca who he helped win the 2017 CAF Champions League.

The five-time African champions, survived an early scare when Raja’s Soufiane Rahimi went down in the box appealing for a penalty which was waved away by Cameroonian referee Alioum Alioum. Then after nine minutes Raja captain Mohsine Moutaouali teed up Abdelilah Hafidi, but his first time shot flew straight to the keeper.

After the goal, the hosts poured forward in search of a leveller and came close three minutes to half time. Rahimi forced a brilliant save from Zamalek keeper Mohamed Abou Gabal with a well-angled header that had the shot-stopper stretching full length to his left to parry away the effort for a corner.

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In the second half, Youssef Obama almost doubled Zamalek’s lead only to see his close-range shot charged down. Raja coach Jamal Sellami made four changes in a bid to find an equalizer. In the 66th minute, they had a flurry of chances.

Badr Benoun’s rifling freekick went against the wall and the rebound fell on Fabrice Ngoma. However, the midfielder’s effort also struck a flurry of bodies inside the box and when the ball was recycled again to him, his flying shot was parried away by the keeper.

Late in the game, Rahimi had a pair of chances that went wasted. His first effort at the stroke of fulltime was deflected for a corner after stretching to direct a headed ball towards goal. His second opportunity was better when he was picked out a by a through ball on the right but he blasted the ball over.

A visibly disappointed Sellami believed his team deserved more from the game. “I believe we deserved a draw at least,” he said.

“I thank my players because they gave their all despite the difficult situation we had. I cannot blame any player today and we were the better side all over the game. We still have a chance in the return leg in Cairo and I believe we are still capable of reaching the final.”

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The result puts Zamalek’s quest of securing a sixth Champions League title and back to back continental silverware firmly on course after they won the CAF Confederation Cup last season. This was also Zamalek’s second win over Raja in three CAF Club Competition matches. For Raja, this was only their second defeat in 23 home matches in the Champions League. It was a complete opposite for Zamalek who came to the tie with a poor away record, having only won one in 13.

Zamalek coach Jaime Pacheco made it clear that his team was not celebrating just yet. “My players played to my instructions and we achieved a good result away from home,’ he said.

“We felt exhausted because we had many domestic games in a short time, but we were brave enough to have this game tonight. Nothing is won yet, we have to remain focused in the return leg and achieve our target by going through to the final.”

The White Knights will host the Moroccan champions in the reverse fixture in Cairo on October 24. Last week, three-time African champions Raja Casablanca ended a thrilling Moroccan Botola Pro league campaign to win their first title since 2013.

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Only on Saturday, fellow Egyptian Premier League giants Al Ahly had beaten Wydad Casablanca 2-0 in the first leg of the other semi-final fixture in Casablanca, thanks to goals from Mohamed Magdy and Ali Maaloul.

The CAF Champions League final is scheduled to take place in Egypt on November 6. However, the Confederation of African Football noted that it could still hold in Morocco if the two teams from the country (Wydad and Raja) overturn their first-leg deficits and qualify.

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