Debutants hope for a ball

Fifty per cent of the clubs chasing a place in the group phase of this year's CAF Champions League hope to reach unchartered territory as they seek to progress through to the last eight for the first time in their history.

The final knockout round to determine the eight teams in the group phase gets underway on Friday with the weekend's first leg encounters followed by the return matches on the first weekend of May.

It is a crucial juncture for the clubs as progress means a chance to share in the lucrative bounty of television and marketing revenue returns that is one of the attractions of Africa's blue-chip club competition, as well as compete in a rigorous test of footballing prowess from July right through to November's final.

The 16 sides left in the race give a fresh look and feel to the proceeding, as the ties between Djoliba (Mali) and Zesco United (Zambia) and Kampala City Council (Uganda) versus Al Merreikh (Sudan) will guarantee two newcomers in the group stage of the competition.

Champions League games generate a lot of pressures and tension. They are very different to our local league matches.
Patrick Liewig, Abidjan coach, issues a warning.

While there is an array of experienced campaigners in the line-up, including defending champions Al Ahly and former winners Etoile Sahel and ASEC Abidjan, there is the strong possibility there will be other newcomers included in the final eight.

Nigeria's Heartland FC will be seeking to overcome last year's runners-up Coton Sport of Cameroon while Morocco's Ittihad Khemisset are looking to edge out TP Mazembe Englebert from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There has also been a stern warning for perennial campaigners ASEC Abidjan of Côte d'Ivoire from their own coach as they prepare to face Monomotapa from Zimbabwe, who are playing in an African club competition for the first time this year.

"Champions League games generate a lot of pressures and tension. They are very different to our local league matches. The most important thing is to keep serenity and confidence," said Frenchman Patrick Liewig. "We can also not afford to underestimate the opponents."

The first leg encounters start on Friday at Kampala's Nakivubo Stadium where Kampala City Council take on Al Merreikh. The last game of the weekend is scheduled for early evening on Sunday when Djoliba host Zesco United, who both play in the knowledge that no side from either Mali or Zambia has got to the Champions League before.

Zesco will be without defender Roger Kamwandi due to suspension but international full-back Hichani Himoonde is fit after recovering from a broken foot last December.

CAF Champions League
Third Round, First Leg

Friday 17 April
Kampala City Council-Al Merreikh

Saturday 18 April
Kano Pillars-Al Ahly
Al Ahli Tripoli-Etoile Sahel

Sunday 19 April
ASEC Abidjan-Monomotapa
Djoliba-Zesco United
Primeiro Agosto-Al Hilal
Heartland FC-Coton Sport
TP Mazembe Englebert-Ittihad Khemisset

The second leg matches will be played on the weekend of 1-3 May.