With less than 50 days to go to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, South Africa is enjoying the glare of world football’s spotlight, sure to get even more intense over the next weeks. But while there have been extensive preparations for the country’s national team, including training camps in Brazil and Germany, the champion club SuperSport United admit they are just seeking to “limp over the line” in their bid to reach the group phase of this year’s CAF Champions League.

Technically the club is at the end of their season, with South Africa’s Premier League having been rushed through this season and completed in February to allow the best players to go off and training with national coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.

SuperSport, who won the championship for a third successive year, have kept going in their bid to secure a berth in the last eight of the continent’s top club competition, but they find themselves woefully short of players as they prepare to host last year’s runners-up Heartland FC of Nigeria in the first leg of their third round tie at Johannesburg’s Rand Stadium on Saturday.

We take to the field fully aware that if we underrate Gaborone United, we will be punished. There are no small teams anymore, for them to have got this far means they are a good side.
Dynamos of Zimbabwe coach Elvis Chiweshe on his side's tie against minnows GU

Coach Gavin Hunt admits that the club are struggling to get through the last of the knockout rounds. “We have eight to nine players from the team that won the championship missing,” he said. “We might have only 14 players available for the game. We are down to the bare bones. It’s very unfortunate but there is nothing we can do about it. We have to just strengthen for the next season.”

Among those sidelined are internationals Emile Baron, Morgan Gould and Glen Salmon, who were all key in the championship win, plus Bongani Khumalo, who is training with the Bafana Bafana squad in Germany.

South African sides have done poorly in recent years in the CAF Champions League and only once produced a winner, when Orlando Pirates won the old-style knockout competition in 1995. But after three seasons at the top of the South African heap, SuperSport see the Champions League as the next major target to aim for. If they do not succeed, there should be at least one southern African club in the league competition, which will get underway one week after the completion of the FIFA World Cup in mid-July.

Favourites stay wary
Dynamos of Zimbabwe are heavily fancied in their tie against Gaborone United, the first team from Botswana to get to the third round of the continent’s top club competition. Dynamos host Sunday’s first leg in Harare boosted by the return of previously injured leading scorer Cuthbert Malajila and having won a domestic trophy, satisfyingly over arch rivals Highlanders of Bulawayo, last weekend.

“Everyone in the team is aware of the importance of this match. Qualifying for the mini league is our main target,” said Dynamos coach Elvis Chiweshe about GU, who pulled off a major upset in the last round by eliminating the other South African representatives Pirates, winning on the away goals rule. “We take to the field fully aware that if we underrate Gaborone United, we will be punished. There are no small teams anymore, for them to have got this far means they are a good side.”

Six of the 16 teams battling for places in the league phase this weekend are former winners, led by holders TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are away at Djoliba of Mali on Sunday. Egypt’s Al Ahli, Esperance of Tunisia and the Algerian pair of Entente Setif and JS Kabylie lead a strong north African challenge. The second leg ties will be played on the weekend of 7-9 May.


This weekend's fixtures
On Friday
In Tunis: Esperance (Tunisia) v Al Merreikh (Sudan)
In Tripoli: Al Ittihad (Libya) v Al Ahli (Egypt)

On Saturday
In Johannesburg: SuperSport United (South Africa) v Heartland FC (Nigeria)
In Setif: Entente Setif (Algeria) v Zanaco (Zambia)

On Sunday
In Bamako: Djoliba (Mali) v TP Mazembe Englebert (DR Congo)
In Harare: Dynamos (Zimbabwe) v Gaborone United (Botswana)
In Khartoum: Al Hilal (Sudan) v Ismaili (Egypt)
In Tizi-Ouzou: JS Kabylie (Algeria) v Petro Atletico (Angola)

The return legs will be played on the weekend of 7-9 May. The winners advance to the league phase in June. The losers go into the fourth round of the African Confederation Cup