AmaZulu’s Group B campaign in the CAF Champions League got off to a losing start, as they were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Moroccan hosts Raja Casablanca at the Stade Mohamed V on Saturday night.
Usuthu, in their debut campaign in Africa’s premier competition, are still very much on a learning curve as compared to a team such as the Green Eagles, who are the reigning CAF Confederation Cup title holders and have won the Champions League three times.
Nonetheless, coach Benni McCarthy’s charges put in a gritty display and were perhaps unlucky not to claim a share of the spoils.
Raja settled the quicker of the two teams and nearly claimed the lead on 14 minutes, with defender Marouane Hadhoudi sending a header onto the base of the post from a right-flank cross, before the rebound was picked up by Beni Badibanga, who turned and flashed a shot just off target.
On 34 minutes the Green Eagles threatened again, with a slick move on the counter attack seeing Badibanga get away a low shot from the edge of the penalty area, but AmaZulu goalkeeper Veli Mothwa made a fine save diving to his right.
Raja should have claimed the lead in injury time before the interval, as Mohamed Zrida teed up Kadima Kabangu with a clear sight of goal, but he was denied by a brilliant save from Mothwa.
The South African then went up the other end of the field and were inches away from breaking the deadlock, as Augusting Mulenga and Thabo Qalinge set up Makhehlene Makhaula to fire a shot which had the beating of Raja goalkeeper Marouane Fakhr but crashed back off the upright.
AmaZulu had the first clear chance of the second half, with a fine passing move six minutes after the restart putting Qalinge into a shooting position, but he dragged a low effort wide of the mark.
Raja dialled up the attacking pressure as the second half progressed and on 67 minutes they claimed the lead, with Mohsine Moutaouali cutting inside from the right and exchanging passes in the penalty area before sliding a low shot through Mothwa’s legs for 1-0.
The North African side, once their lead was established, showed their experience and craft in slowing down the game and blunting AmaZulu’s efforts to get back into the contest – even with the visitors throwing on the likes of Abrahama Majok, Keagan Buchanan, Tshepang Moremi and Luvoyo Memela in an attempt to spark their attack.
Ultimately the match ended 1-0 in favour of Raja Casablanca, with Usuthu left to reflect on lessons learned the hard way against experienced and canny opponents.
The teams will be back in CAFCL Group B action next weekend, with AmaZulu hosting Guinean club Horoya AC and Raja visiting Algeria’s ES Setif.
Raja Casablanca (0) 1 (Moutaouali 67’)
Raja: Fakhr, Jbira, Hadhoudi, Harkass, Madkour (Nahiri 83’), Zrida, El Wardi, Al Makaazi (Benjdida 84’), Moutaouali, Kabangu (Kouyate 90+1’), Badibanga
AmaZulu: Mothwa, Sikhakhane (Mgwazela 76’), Xoki, Gumede, Malepe, Ceesay, Makhaula (Buchanan 81’), Mobara (Memela 76’), Qalinge, Mulenga (Moremi 81’), Ntuli (Majok 60’)