FIFA Club World Cup runners-up TP Mazembe face the first serious examination of their credentials this weekend as they seek a hat-trick of CAF Champions League titles.
The Crows must take advantage of playing at home and overcome a 1-0 loss at Wydad Casablanca of Morocco if they are to reach the last-eight mini-league phase of the premier Pan-African club competition. After losing the final against Inter Milan of Italy 3-0 in Abu Dhabi last December, players and officials from the Congolese club vowed to conquer Africa again and have another crack at the world championship.
Mazembe began the challenge for a third consecutive African title with home and away victories over Simba of Tanzania before falling to an early Mustapha Allaoui goal two weeks ago in the Moroccan commercial capital. It is a third round deficit the home team should be able to overcome even though they still lack talismanic midfielder Mabi Mputu, suspended for a year last May for his role in the assault of match officials.
There was a silver lining to the ban as footballers like young midfielder Dioko Kaluyituka sprung to prominence and his scoring skills pose a major threat to 1992 African champions Wydad. Kaluyituka was on target once in Lubumbashi and twice in Dar es Salaam against Simba, whose Zambia-born coach Patrick Phiri praised the Congolese after the tie.
"Mazembe did not reach the Club World Cup final because somebody likes them. They are a quality side with lots of experience. We tried our best, but our best was not good enough," admitted Phiri.
Wydad have proved defensively stingy in away outings this season, losing 1-0 to Aduana Stars in Ghana after taking a three-goal advantage there and holding Kano Pillars 0-0 in Nigeria as they defended a two-goal lead. Record six-time African champions Al Ahly of Egypt are widely considered the biggest threat to Mazembe and a goalless draw in Zambia against ZESCO United suggests they will be among the eight group-draw participants.
Ahly coach Manuel Jose has confessed that many of his stars such as midfield magician Mohamed Aboutrika are growing old and the team requires a transfusion of young blood. But Cairo's Red Devils are now getting the regular competitive practice denied to them early this year because of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak and it would be a shock if ZESCO prevailed.
Runners-up to Mazembe last year, Esperance are odds-on to progress after walloping Diaraf of Senegal 5-0 at home, while fellow Tunisian challengers Club Africain must overcome a 1-0 deficit when Al-Hilal of Sudan visit Tunis. The 1976 African champions Mouloudia Alger of Algeria also look set to make the mini-league phase having snatched a stoppage-time equaliser in Angola to draw 1-1 with InterClube.
Fellow Algerians Entente Setif tackle 2008 runners-up Cotonsport Garoua of Cameroon in a first leg delayed two weeks because four of the Cameroon African youth championship squad came from the northern club. Al-Ittihad and ASEC Mimosas have had to surrender home fixtures because of the security situation in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire, giving opponents Enyimba of Nigeria and Raja Casablanca of Morocco a distinct advantage in one-leg ties.