Defending champions TP Mazembe head a group of several high-profile clubs that embark on their CAF Champions League campaign on the weekend. The Lubumbashi-based club was one of several teams that received a bye into the first round and sat on the sidelines as the first 21 clubs were knocked out in the preliminary stages.
Mazembe, who beat USM Alger over two legs in last year's final, start the defence of their title with a clash against Ethiopian club St George. The five-time champions have a new coach in former Togo manager Hubert Velud, who took over from Patrice Carteron at the beginning of the year. The Frenchman, who won back-to-back titles in Algeria with ES Setif and USM in 2013 and 2014, said that he was aware what it meant taking over a club with the stature of Mazembe.
“They are known internationally and have participated in several FIFA Club World Cups," Velud said. "Officials want to take this club even further. I know it will be difficult, I am well aware of that, but I will take up the challenge.”
The only club that has been more successful in the Champions League, Al Ahly, have disappointingly been knocked out ahead of the group stages in the last two years. They also have a new coach in Martin Jol, who became the third coach to guide the Cairo giants this season. The Red Devils are away in Angola for their first leg clash against Recreativo do Libolo and the former Tottenham Hotspur and Hamburg coach will be without striker Emad Meteb and goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy, who both had to withdraw with injuries. Al Ahly's local rival Zamalek travel to Cameroon for their first leg clash against Union Douala, who finished as runners-up in the domestic league last season to Coton Sport, who join the event up against Stade Malien.
Challenges all around
The two South African entrants, Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs, face a tough hurdle if they want to advance to the second round. Sundowns, who lost their first leg in the preliminary round in Zimbabwe and needed an injury time penalty to advance, take on 2012 CAF Confederation Cup winners AC Leopards.
Sundowns midfielder Tiyani Mabunda believes the secret of their success is unity in ambition: “Whatever is on offer, whatever trophy there is, we are willing to go and compete for it and try to win it. Everybody at Sundowns is willing to work and everybody is willing to help the team win.”
Chiefs should face a similarly tough challenge drawn against Côte d'Ivoire club ASEC Mimosas, who knocked them out of the Confederation Cup two years ago. International defender Siboniso Gaxa says the Amakhosi are wary but confident against their opponents. “We have played them before, and I know that they are a club with a good history. There is no need for us to be hoping that we could have played another team and not them. This is Champions League and so you have to play the best.”
North African fans will be disappointed that two clubs from the region will definitely be knocked-out as there are two all-North African matches. Tunisian club Club Africain, who won the competition in 1991, are at home in their first leg against MO Bejaia from Algeria, who are playing in the tournament for the first time in their history, while Moroccan club Olympique Khouribga are up against Etoile du Sahel. Khouribga's only other participation in the competition in 2008 ended in the play-off round. They should be a very tough nut to crack at home and will fancy their chances against the Tunisian club, who have been in three finals and was continental champion in 2007.
From big to small
The two Nigerian clubs in the competition have been drawn against opponents they will be expecting to beat. Warri Wolves take on last year's semi-finalists Al-Merrikh from Sudan, while two-time champions Enyimba are up against Burundian club Vital'O. The draw has also ensured that at least two clubs, whose previous campaigns in Africa's flagship club event usually do not last long, will advance to the last 16.
The first of two ties featuring relative minnows will see Tanzania's Young Africans up against Rwandan club APR, who have only just appointed Tunisian coach Nizar Khanfir. The other tie will have a winner between Guinean champions Horoya, who play the first leg away in Zambia against Zesco United.