Congolese heroes back in action

Tout Puissant Mazembe stars return to the international stage this weekend just seven days after helping Congo DR win the CAF African Nations Championship.

The team, formed by benedictine monks 70 years ago in the south-east city of Lubumbashi, host Petro Atletico of Angola in an CAF Champions League second round, first leg qualifier at the Municipal Stadium. And the Nations Championship connection does not end there, with the 14 Mazembe players in the squad that upset Ghana last Sunday to lift the trophy in Côte d'Ivoire's economic capital, Abidjan.

National coach Mutumbile 'Obama' Santos doubles as boss of Mazembe, who in 1968 became the first club to successful defend the leading Pan-African club competition then called the African Champions Cup. Since the revamp that introduced prize money and scrapped quarter-finals in favour of mini-leagues, Mazembe came closest to glory when losing to eventual winners Zamalek of Egypt in the 2002 semi-finals.

Goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba played against the Cairo 'White Knights' and remains the first choice at 33 years old while dreaming of a belated chance to earn a professional contract abroad. He was an ever-present in the Nations Championship drive to glory and another was striker and player of the tournament Mabi Mputu, who received the accolade although his legendary scoring prowess deserted him.

Mputu scored just one of the seven Congo DR goals in west Africa and Petro must hope he does not rediscover his touch at their expense on a pitch once banned from staging international fixtures because of a hard, bumpy surface. Congolese celebrations of their first national team triumph in 35 years continued until midweek, leaving Santos and his squad with little time for preparations, and that could spell trouble.

A Petro team coached by Portuguese Bernardino Pedroto had easy home and away wins over Royal Leopards of Swaziland last month and come to Lubumbashi on song having begun their national league campaign with three consecutive victories.

Defending champions Al Ahly of Egypt, winners a record sixth time last year, were among 11 clubs who received first round byes and start their challenge at home to Young Africans of Tanzania. The Cairo 'Red Devils' returned to domestic form midweek with a 3-0 triumph at lowly Olympic after an uncharacteristic four-match winless run, although concerns about a leaking defence persist.

Palestine goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh has replaced 2008 Champions League winner Amir Abdulhamid in the last four games and if he gets the nod, should be wary of Boniface Ambani and Mrisho Ngassa. They bagged five goals apiece in the record 14-1 aggregate destruction of minnows Etoile d'Or Mirontsy from the Comoros Islands and Kenya-born Ambani boasts that Dar es Salaam-based 'Yanga' can eliminate the Egyptians.

Ahly and Mazembe are among nine holders of the title in action with three-time champions Canon Yaounde of Cameroon away to Primeiro Agosto of Angola and 1991 winners Club Africain of Tunisia hosting Djoliba of Mali. Etoile Sahel, who stunned Ahly in the 2007 final, have bolstered their squad with Nigerian, Brazilian and Colombian signings ahead of a home fixture against Algerian outfit ASO Chlef.

ASEC Mimosas of Côte d'Ivoire, JS Kabylie of Algeria and Asante Kotoko of Ghana host Etoile Filante of Burkina Faso, Al-Ahly of Libya and Al-Ittihad Khemisset of Morocco while FAR Rabat of Morocco visit Heartland of Nigeria.