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Lobi Stars begin continental campaign with loss

Football
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CAF Super Cup: Have Wydad truly turned the corner under Benzarti?

Much has happened in the three months since Wydad Casablanca won the CAF Champions League, but the troubled Moroccan giants could banish the memory of their recent toil with a victory in Saturday's Super Cup final.

The annual exhibition fixture pits the winners of Africa's top continental club competition against the CAF Confederation Cup holders, this year, Democratic Republic of Congo heavyweights Tout Puissant Mazembe.

Typically, it's a one-off showpiece won by the Champions League winners.

Beyond the obvious fact that they 'qualified' for the match by virtue of winning Africa's top competition rather than its little brother, they also have home advantage, with the CAF CL holders always playing host for the Super Cup.

In Africa, significant travelling times, major changes in climate and an almost complete absence of away fans ensure that playing at your own place really does represent home advantage.

For Mazembe, in particular, their remarkable support in Lubumbashi is one of the team's key weapons, and they're notably weaker away from their cauldron of a home ground.

The weight of history is also with Wydad.

Only one of the last 19 Super Cup winners have not been the Champions League winners, with Maghreb Fez in 2012 the only exceptions.

This year, however, there's reason for Mazembe to fancy their chances of bucking a trend.

Wydad's form and fortune since their 2-1 aggregate triumph over Al-Ahly in late October and early November has been astonishing.

Derailed perhaps by the distraction of the FIFA Club World Cup in December - they didn't excel and ended up losing both matches - they lost their way domestically, and endured an unexpected barren run.

Between mid December and mid February, they took just four points from a possible 24, winning one, drawing one, and losing six.

It was too much for the club's hierarchy, who ultimately opted to sever ties with coach Hussein Amotta last month. Remarkably, his exit came less than a week after he'd missed out on the Coach of the Year award at the Confederation of African Football's annual awards ceremony.

Amotta's success with Wydad, both in the Botola in 2017 and in continental competition, was due in no small part to the performance of several star men.

However, in the months following their victory over Ahly, bigger clubs from richer continents have come knocking for some of Wydad's top stars.

Achraf Bencharki - top scorer in last season's Champions League - has been nabbed by Al-Hilal FC of Saudi Arabia, while Abdeladim Khadrouf, Guillaume Nicaise Dabo, Youssef Rabeh and Mohamed Ouattara have all also moved on.

Predictably, Wydad supplied a significant contingent to the Morocco squad that won the African Nations Championship on home soil earlier this month.

The timing of this tournament, and the weight placed upon it by the federation - with one eye on the World Cup in Russia, and another on their bid to host the 2026 event - hardly helped focus Wydad minds on picking the club up out of their malaise.

They were without a win in six - a run that included a derby defeat by Raja Casablanca at the Stade Mohammed V - before their miserable streak finally ended with a victory over FUS Rabat on Valentine's Day.

Now under the guidance of new coach Faouzi Benzarti, they followed that up with a 3-1 triumph over Rapide Oued Zem on home soil, prompting hope that their barren spell is behind them.

They remain a disappointing ninth in the Botola - a whopping 11 points off leaders Ittihad Tanger - and only 10 above the relegation zone.

Their back-to-back victories will ensure that they enter Sunday's showpiece in a better frame of mind than they have been in recent weeks, although Mazembe - seasoned continental competitors and three-time Super Cup winners - will offer a stern examination to Benzarti's reconfigured side.

Expect Saturday's fixture to offer concrete evidence that Wydad are over their slump and firmly on the road to recovery after a miserable few months.

However, failure to extend the winning run of CAF Champions League winners in the exhibition fixture will make it clear that Benzarti still has much work to do to pick the Casablanca heavyweights up from their lingering malaise.

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.

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