The 2012 CAF Champions League qualifying draw released this weekend was kind to title holders Esperance of Tunisia. A first round bye is followed by a match-up with Brikama United of Gambia or US Ouakam of Senegal and whoever wins the clash of west African neighbours is unlikely to seriously trouble the Blood and Gold.
Assuming Esperance clear the first hurdle in defence of a title won against Wydad Casablanca of Morocco last month, the Tunis club will confront Mafunzo of Zanzibar, Liga Muculmana of Mozambique or Dynamos of Zimbabwe. Dynamos are the probable survivors among that threesome and while they are experienced international campaigners, the Harare Glamour Boys often come up short when opposing clubs from the north of the continent.
Egyptian duo Al-Ahly, winners of the premier CAF club competition a record six times, and Zamalek as well as TP Mazembe of Congo DR are all potential threats to Esperance. Ahly coach Manuel Jose from Portugal may be rebuilding, but he will not be unduly concerned whether his team confront Coin Nord Mitsamiouli from the Comoros Islands or Coffee of Ethiopia. And while the wily Jose never publicly dismisses opponents, it would be a shock if the Cairo Red Devils did not reach the last eight at the expense of probable third-round rivals Stade Malien of Mali.
Zamalek are coached by Hassan Shehata, who guided Egypt to a record three consecutive CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles between 2006 and 2010 before quitting last June after failing to reach the 2012 tournament. His White Knights face a much tougher passage than bitter rivals Ahly with resurgent Africa Sports of Côte d'Ivoire and 2011 CAF Confederation Cup winners Moghreb Fes of Morocco looming as potential opponents.
Mazembe, runners-up to Inter Milan in the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup before being kicked out of Africa this year for using an ineligible player, may face Power Dynamos of Zambia and Al-Merreikh of Sudan and will fancy their chances. Former African champions Club Africain of Tunisia, Entente Setif of Algeria, ASEC Mimosas of Côte d'Ivoire, Union Douala of Cameroon and Wydad are among the entrants for the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup.
There will be much intereset in African debutants Nania FC from Ghana, whose president and coach is Abedi Pele, a UEFA Champions League winner with Marseille two decades ago and three-time African Football of the Year. The Champions League and Confederation Cup qualifiers start over the weekend of February 17-19 - a week after the final of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon capital Libreville.