Africa’s finest set for battle
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The long journey to continental glory, and with it a berth at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup, commences for African clubs this weekend with the first leg fixtures in the preliminary round of the CAF Champions League.

A total of 48 teams will compete in the opening stage of the competition, playing a knockout round over two legs. The aggregate winners will be joined by eight more teams in the first round next month before a third knockout round determines the eight teams for the final league phase.

For the first time, two representatives from Libya and Zimbabwe were in the draw, along with the 12 other countries that have previously enjoyed the privilege of entering more than one team. It means a stronger field for the competition, which last year was characterised by early shock defeats for the favourites and eventually won by TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Holding tight to the crown
TP Mazembe Englebert beat Heartland of Nigeria over two legs in last year’s final, claiming their third continental title almost four decades after they had last been crowned kings of African club football. Extensive investment into the club by Katanga governor Moise Katumbi has transformed Mazembe into a formidable, and now, cosmopolitan outfit. They have already begun preparations for the defence of their title by returning to Zimbabwe, the site of their pre-season camp last year in the lead-up to their triumph last November.

Mazembe, who won consecutive continental trophies in the late 60s, were given a bye for this weekend’s first round, but they await the winner of the tie between Rwanda’s APR FC and Angolan newcomers Recreativo Libolo.

Contenders for the throne
Egypt’s Al Ahly have been the dominant club in the Champions League in this millennium, winning it four times in the 2000s, but they were surprisingly eliminated on away goals by Kano Pillars of Nigeria in the final knockout round last May. However, their pedigree remains beyond doubt, and it has indeed been enhanced in recent weeks by the form of their key players while with the Egyptian national side during their winning performance at the CAF Africa Cup of Nation in Angola. Al Ahly have also been given a bye to the second round where they will take on either Mafunzo FC of Zanzibar or Gunners FC from Zimbabwe, two sides making their debut in continental club competition.

This year’s Champions League field also includes eight other former champions: ASEC Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Asante Kotoko (Ghana), Ismaili (Egypt), Raja Casablanca (Morocco), JS Kabylie (Algeria), Entente Setif (Algeria), Orlando Pirates (South Africa) and Esperance (Tunisia). Esperance are always highly regarded and have the lead in this year’s Tunisian Ligue 1 campaign, while Raja have bounced back after several years of mediocre returns to again pose a serious continental threat.

Outsiders looking in
It is a big year for South African football with the hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ finals, and the country’s two-time champions SuperSport United have built a formidable squad in the domestic league, where they are on course to win the Premier Soccer League title for a third successive season.

Last year in the Champions League, SuperSport were embarrassingly eliminated early on by Ugandan opposition, but they have promised to do better this year, and even while losing some key players to South African national team training camps over the next six months, they still have plenty of depth at their disposal. SuperSport open the tournament with a relatively straightforward trip across the border to Swaziland on Sunday against Mbabane Swallows.

Petro Atletico of Luanda are another team with plentiful resources, and under experienced Portuguese coach Bernardino Pedroto, they proved their ability with successive Girabola titles, suggesting that this year will provide the ideal opportunity to stake a bigger claim on the continent. Their first tie is in Equatorial Guinea where they meet Ela Nguema at the weekend in Malabo.

Fixtures
APR FC (Rwanda) - Recreativo Libolo (Angola)
Djoliba (Mali) - Al Ahli Benghazi (Libya)
ASC Linguere (Senegal) - Asante Kotoko (Ghana)
Sofapaka (Kenya) - Ismaili (Egypt)
US Tamponnaise (Reunion) - Ajesaia (Madagascar)
Fello Star (Guinea) - Raja Casablanca (Morocco)
Ela Nguema (Equatorial Guinea) - Petro Atletico (Angola)
Sahel SC (Niger) - Club Africain (Tunisia)
Armed Forces (Gambia) - JS Kabylie (Algeria)
Gazelle (Chad) - Bayelsa United (Nigeria)
St Georges (Ethiopia) - Al Merreikh (Sudan)
East End Lions (Sierra Leone) - Esperance (Tunisia)
AS Stade Mandji (Gabon) - ASFA Yenega (Burkina Faso)
La Passe (Seychelles) - Curepipe Stralight (Mauritius)
Gaborone United (Botswana) - Orlando Pirates (South Africa)
Young Africans (Tanzania) - FC St Eloi Lupopo (DR Congo)
Mafunzo (Zanzibar) - Gunners FC (Zimbabwe)
AS Tempete Mocaf (Central African Republic) - Al Ittihad (Libya)
Balantas Mansoa (Guinea Bissau) - DH Jadida (Morocco)
Uganda Revenue Authority (Uganda) - Zanaco (Zambia)
Diables Noirs (Congo) - Entente Setif (Algeria)
Vital’O (Burundi) - Tiko United (Cameroon)
Mbabane Swallows - SuperSport United (South Africa)
AC Mitsamiouli (Comoros) - Ferroviario Maputo (Mozambique)

The weekend’s matches are being played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the return matches on the weekend of 26-28 February.