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Uri Levy

Arab teams dominating African Champions League: This week in Middle Eastern football

Al-Ahly fans rejoice during their game against Esperance Tunis [AFP]

Date of publication: 28 September, 2017

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Blog: All four teams in the continent's top club competition are from north African nations, writes Uri Levy.
The African Champions' League is entering its final phases, and, for the first in time in African Champions' League history, all four teams to play in the competition's semi-finals are from four different North African countries.

Egypt's Al-Ahly, USM Ittihad Algiers from Algeria, Morocco's Wydad Casablanca and Etoile du Sahel from Tunisia all went through after difficult knock-out double-headers in the quarters.

Al-Ahly beat Esperance Tunis 2-1 in Rades, after finishing the first leg with a 2-2 draw. Despite the away goal advantage held by the Tunisians, the Egyptian champions came back strong in the second leg and seem like top contenders to win the title.

In the semi-final, Al-Ahly will meet another Tunisian club, Etoile du Sahel.

The Shore Stars from Sousse brought an end to one of the most heroic sports stories of the year by eliminating Libyan champions Al-Ahli Tripoli in the quarter-final. The Libyans had been on a terrific run, defeating giants Zamalek in the group stage - despite the horrific situation in their home country meaning they could not host matches on their home soil.

But Etoile were much better in the quarters and won 2-0 after a brace from Amr Marei, the Egyptian centre-forward.

Ittihad Algiers finished their second-leg match against Mozambiquien Ferroviario with a 0-0 tie at home, sending them to the next stage on away goals following a 1-1 in the first leg in Mozambique.

Wydad Casablanca hosted the reigning African champions Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa in their second-leg fixture. But the Moroccans did not welcome the Pretoria club at the lucrative Mohammad V Stadium in Casablanca, but at the Prince Moulay Abdallah in Rabat. The Moroccan FA had decided to protect the Casablanca turf for upcoming national team and Club World Cup matches, and so the teams headed to the country's capital for the showdown.

After losing the first game in Pretoria, Morocco's champions came back in the second leg - but didn't make it easy for themselves.

Salaheddiine Saidi, Casablanca's defensive midfielder, scored the opener in the first half to draw level on aggregate - but his red-shirted teammates couldn't find another goal to clinch the deal.

The match went to a dramatic penalty shootout, in which the Moroccans missed first, but were last to celebrate.

Now, the Moroccans will face the Algerians in the semi-final, in what will be the battle of the Ultras - the two teams enjoy the support of the probably the best fandom organisations in the continent.

The African Champions' League is heating up as we enter the final stages, and it will be an all-North African adventure, with fans predicting a festive final between Al-Ahly and Wydad.

Iran's top striker 'out for months'

In a surprise move, FIFA has slapped Mehdi Taremi, the Iranian superstar striker of Persepolis Tehran, with a four-month ban from club football, due to his contract violation with Turkish club Çaykur Rizespor.

Taremi had been in a contract dispute with Rizespor dating back to June 2016, when the player reached an agreement to join the club but later returned to Persepolis. The Turkish side will receive 789,500 euros in compensation from Persepolis for breach of transfer rules.

Persepolis has also been banned from signing any players in the next two transfer windows.

In one of his best seasons ever, and in a World Cup qualifying year, Taremi's lengthy ban will probably affect his form and will take his name out of the running for 2017 Asian Player of the Year. It's terrible timing for the club, too, with Persepolis drawn to play against Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal in the Asian Champions' League semis, now without their best player.

The internet, as ever, is rife with talk of conspiracy, and in Iranian football forums, fans are convinced the Saudis are funding the Turkish club and paying off FIFA. But it will be interesting to see how the Iranian champions handle the pressure without Taremi.

Game on in Palestine

The Palestinian League kicked off this weekend after a long break.

This season, Dauri Muhtarifin should be a very interesting competition, with both Shabab and Ahli Al-Khaleel, the two major clubs from Hebron City, losing important figures, while champions Hilal Al-Quds have further strengthened their side, recruiting Rami Hamadi and Ali Adawi.

Shabab Dhariah seem to meandering without direction, and Thagafi Tulkarem will miss the Mar'abeh brothers, who moved to Hebron's Al-Ahli.

Despite the excitement for the new season and the new squads, the scoresheet was pretty dull for the first matchday, with just twelve goals scored across six matches.

And six of those goals were scored in one match, with Shabab Samu crushing Dura 5-1.

Istanbul derby

Istanbul derbies are well known all over the world for their intensity, fierce atmosphere and poor refereeing - but the one that was played between Fenerbahce and Besiktas on Saturday night was something else.

The match at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium saw 11 yellow cards, five reds, two penalties and three goals. The goals from Giulano and Janesn for Fener won the game, despite the late goal by Ryan Babel for Besiktas' Black Eagles.

For years, due to the number of cards, whistles and controversial decisions they take, referees have been the main figures in Istanbul derbies. With the decision to lift the ban on away crowds in the city's derbies, even more fuel has been added to these football bonfires, and it's coming back to fashion that the officials are again the stars of the show.

Nevertheless, this weekend's derby was only a warm-up to Istanbul's fiercest battle - Fenerbhace versus Galatasaray - pitting the Asian and the European sides of the city against each other in a clash due at the end of October.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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