Africa's top club competition has reached the last 16
stage as teams now battle it out this weekend in the last knockout
round for a place in the group phase in July
Al Ahly finally get to make their bow in this year's CAF Champions League, having progressed past the first two rounds without kicking a ball. Less than a week after claiming yet another Egyptian Premier League crown - their 33rd in just over 50 years - the Cairo giants now turn their attention to the continent's top club competition and a match at rookies Platinum Stars.
The South Africans, who qualified by virtue of finishing second in their domestic championship last season, have progressed as expected to the third round of the Champions League but now face a huge hurdle in arguably the biggest match of their relatively short history. Based in Rustenburg, some 200km north-west of Johannesburg, Platinum were previously known as Silver Stars and established less than decade ago by enthusiast Larry Brookstone, who initially wanted a club where his sons could play. It has quickly developed into a massive passion for the insurance magnate and culminates on Saturday when they host Al Ahly at the Super Stadium in Atteridgeville, on the outskirts of Pretoria.
Stars found themselves rock-bottom of the PSL standings earlier this season, but a strong run of form since Miguel Angel Gamondi assumed the reins just before Christmas has elevated them to sixth. The Argentine coach brings considerable Champions League experience to the tie. He was the assistant to the fabled Luis Oscar Fullone when ASEC Abidjan and Raja Casablanca won Africa's top club prizes in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and he also worked at Esperance.
In his own right, Gamondi has coached in Morocco and won the South African championship when in charge at Mamelodi Sundowns. "We have a few ideas to try and exploit the way they play," he said ahead of the Al Ahly clash. "There is no way we are just going out to enjoy the experience of playing against some of the big names of African football. This is a tie we can win if things go our way."
Goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands said the prospect of being on the same pitch as the likes of Al Ahly luminaries Mohamed Aboutrika, Mohamed Barakat and Emad Moteab was exciting. "We need to keep a clean sheet at home and see what we can do in the away leg," he added. However, last year Al Ahly swept aside the challenge of another South African club, Mamelodi Sundowns, who had similar expectations at the same stage of the competition.
Saturday's game is the first for the Cairo club in continental competition since their 3-1 home defeat to Etoile Sahel in the second leg of last year's final. The match in Cairo was supposed to be the crowning glory of a long-standing dominant spell in African football and after drawing 0-0 in the first leg, Egypt's most popular team were the huge favourites to win the return and set a new standard with a third successive Champions League triumph.
Instead, they imploded in a rare show of nerves and now start their bid for a record-breaking sixth title all over again. Al Ahly had a bye in the first round and then went through again without playing when second round opponents, Al Tahrir of Eritrea, withdrew from the competition.
ASEC eye fresh landmark
An aggregate victory over Platinum Stars would see the Egyptians through to the group phase for the eighth time since the current format was introduced in 1997. It is a considerable achievement but one that is, nonetheless, overshadowed by ASEC Abidjan, who have played in the group phase eight times already and will set a new benchmark if they get past Olympique Khouribga of Morocco in the third round.
The first leg of that tie is being played in Abidjan on Sunday at a time when the home side are struggling to replicate the form that has made them west Africa's dominant team over the past decade.
ASEC last year were, however, the only side from the sub-Saharan
Africa to qualify for the last eight. This year there is the
possibility of a clean sweep by clubs from the Arabic-speaking
north of the continent, something that has never happened before.
CAF Champions League third round, first leg fixtures:
Saturday 26 April
Zamalek (Egypt) - InterClube (Angola)
Coton Sport (Cameroon) - JS Kabylie (Algeria)
Al Hilal (Sudan) - Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa)
Platinum Stars (South Africa) - Al Ahly (Egypt)
Al Ittihad (Libya) - Mazembe Englebert (DR Congo)
Sunday 27 April
Enyimba (Nigeria) - Club Africain (Tunisia)
ASEC Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire) - Olympique Khouribga (Morocco)
Dynamos (Zimbabwe) - Etoile Sahel (Tunisia)
The return legs will be played between 9 and 11 May, with the winners advancing to the group phase in July.