JOHANNESBURG: Star-less USM Alger host star-saturated TP Mazembe on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final looking to continue recent North African dominance of the competition.
A $1.5 million cheque goes to the winner along with an invite to the even more lucrative FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December.
It is the second successive Champions League decider, and third overall, between clubs from Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the North Africans winning the previous two.
First-time finalists USM are coached by local Miloud Hamdi, whose team consists of Algerians and Malagasy striker Carolus Andriamanitsinoro.
None of the Algerians are big names and the pair nominated for the 2015 Africa-based Footballer of the Year — Zinedine Ferhat and Mohamed Meftah — are not guaranteed starting places.
Youcef Belaili, leading USM scorer in Africa this season with four goals, was barred for two years by the organisers after failing a post-match drug test during the group stage.
Four-time African champions Mazembe last won the title in 2010 before seeing North African sides regain a stranglehold on the trophy since.
However, in contrast to their opponents, Mazembe are a potent mix of stars from DR Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Tanzania and Zambia, coached by Frenchman Patrice Carteron.
Given the array of talent, competition for starting places is fierce and first-choice Ivory Coast goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo is only the back-up shot-stopper at Mazembe to Congolese veteran Muteba Kidiaba.
Famous for his bouncing-bottom goal celebrations, Kidiaba is but one household name with the others including Zambia midfielder Rainford Kalaba and Tanzania striker Mbwana Samatta.
Hamdi has warned his squad not to be overawed by the Mazembe maestros ahead of the first match at the 17,500-capacity Stade Omar Hamadi, which overlooks the Mediterranean.
“We dare not underestimate Mazembe,” said the 44-year-old who took over in mid-year when German Otto Pfister was fired following dismal domestic results.
“But we must not fall into the trap of overestimating them either simply because they boast international stars.”
The Algiers club have been outstanding at home en route to the final, winning six consecutive qualifying and group games and scoring 14 goals before a 0-0 semi-final stalemate with Al Hilal of Sudan.
USM could afford to be cautious against Hilal having built a 2-1 away lead through Mohamed Aoudia and Karim Baiteche goals.
The most impressive victory was a 3-0 group drubbing of fellow Algerians Entente Setif, which eliminated the defending champions.
Mazembe, whose four titles makes them the third most successful Champions League club after Egyptian outfits Al Ahly (eight) and Zamalek (five), reached the final having won only one of six away games.
They drew two and lost three, all by single-goal margins, and one-time Sunderland defender Carteron has emphasised the mental side of the game during preparations in Morocco.
“My players need to be positive and happy,” stressed the 45-year-old who guided Mazembe to the semi-finals last season before a couple of Kidiaba clangers gifted Setif victory.
“We crave success and will do everything in our power to win the first leg.”
Mazembe host the second leg next Sunday on an artificial pitch in southern Congolese mining hub Lubumbashi.