Sudanese rivalry gets new stage

The rivalry between Al Merreikh and Al Hilal stretches back more than half a century but this weekend it will be played out on a new stage when the two Sudanese clubs meet in the CAF Champions League.

The two have been paired together in Group A as the eight remaining clubs move onto the group phase in the race to decide the continent's best team and a place in December's FIFA Club World Cup.

It is not the first time that two clubs from the same country have been placed in the same group, but arguably presents the most intense rivalry yet seen at this stage of the competition. The two have stadiums within throwing distance of each other, on the far side of the River Nile in the suburb of Omdurman, and have totally dominated their domestic league for almost 50 years, creating a hotly contested and all dominant rivalry.

Indeed, in 45 years of the Sudanese championship, all but three league titles have been one by the pair. Al Hilal have the advantage over Al Merreikh with 24 titles to 17 and were Champions League semi-finalists two years ago. But Al Merreikh have twice reached the final of a major African club competition and were Sudan double winners last season, pipping Al Hilal to second place in the league and also beating them in the Cup final.

This season both are unbeaten in domestic competition, but Al Hilal have a four-point lead in the championship race. Saturday's Champions League game adds a new chapter to the rivalry and will also deliver an early indication as to who will be among the frontrunners.

Etoile the favourites
It is expected both Sudanese sides will make a strong bid for the title but the pre-tournament favourites are Etoile Sahel. The Tunisian team were winners two years ago but last year failed to make the group phase when they were surprisingly beaten in the last of knockout rounds before the start of the league competition.

A similar fate befell defending champions Al Ahly of Egypt, whose failure to make this year's group phase rates as one of the biggest shocks in the recent Champions League memory. Etoile will hope to take advantage of the absence of the Egyptians, although they are in for a tough start away in Harare on Sunday against Monomotapa.

The weekend's programme begins in Chililabombwe in Zambia where Zesco United hosts Kano Pillars, the Nigerian side who conquered Al Ahli in the previous round. The other weekend tie is a short driving distance away across the border in DR Congo where TP Mazembe Englebert host Nigeria's other representative, Heartland FC.