African big boys make their entrance
© AFP

The 2012 CAF Champions League kicks off in earnest this weekend with the first legs of the Round of 32 taking place. Making their entrance into the competition are Africa’s 13 top-seeded sides, each with designs on going all the way. FIFA.com looks ahead to the 16 ties, to be played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Game of the week
Zamalek-Africa Sports
This duel is a replay of the 1986 CAF Champions League final, which Zamalek won 4-2 on penalties after both sides had recorded 2-0 home victories.

These two clubs have proud histories. Stars such as George Weah, Rashidi Yekini, Stephen Keshi, Joseph-Antoine Bell, Jean-Jacques Tizie, Kader Keita and Ahmed Tour have all turned out for Africa Sports, while the likes of Ibrahim Youssef, Gamal Abdelhamid, Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan and Emmanuel Amunike have all graced Zamalek, one of Egypt’s most popular and successful clubs.

Having failed to make much of an impression on the continental scene in the last ten years, both teams will be looking at this game as a springboard for them to get back into the big time.

The other matches
Holders Esperance are among the big fish making their entrance in this second round, along with Etoile du Sahel, TP Mazembe, Al-Ahly, Raja Casablanca and Al-Hilal, while a clutch of less fancied sides, among them ASO Chlef, Zamalek and Berekum Chelsea, are full of confidence after safely negotiating the first qualifying round.

Berekum Chelsea, who hail from Ghana and owe their name to their admiration for the London club where national idol Michael Essien plays, are appearing in the competition for the first time. Founded only ten years ago, they have just won their first Ghanaian title and now have their sights set on continental success.

Ghana’s sole representatives in the competition, Berekum have nurtured a core of talented youngsters spearheaded by striker Emmanuel Clottey, but will need to be at their very best to deny three-time African champions Raja Casablanca. The two teams have been struggling in their respective leagues of late and will welcome the opportunity to impress on the big stage.

Also featuring high on the week’s card are the games between Nigeria’s Dolphin and Coton Sport of Cameroon, Zimbabwe’s Platinum Stars and Al-Merreikh of Sudan, Algeria’s ASO Chlef and Vita Club of Congo DR, and Mali’s Stade Malien and Tonnerre of Benin, all of which look too close to call.

Meanwhile, Al-Ahly fans will welcome their side’s trip to Ethiopia to face Ethiopian Coffee, their first game since the disturbances in Port-Said, which cost the lives of 74 people. On paper, the Egyptian champions should not have too much trouble in progressing to the last 16, but will need to be watchful after their lengthy break.

Player to watch
Following his performances at the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations Gabon/Equatorial Guinea, Esperance fans are expecting big things of young Tunisian midfielder Youssef Msakni, the scorer of seven league goals for them this season. Such is Msakni’s poise on the ball that he has earned the nickname Lio, in reference to the great Lionel Messi.

The stat
7 - Al Ahly are looking for their seventh African title, having won the competition more times than any other club.

What they said
“I can’t wait to face Raja Casablanca, though we need to adopt a totally different approach to the last round because North African teams are always well organised and have got lots of experience too,” Berekum Chelsea’s Dutch coach Hans van der Pluym.

This weekend’s CAF Champions League Round of 32 ties (be played on 23-25 March):

DFC8 (CTA)-(SDN) Al-Hilal
Horoya AC (GUI)-(MAR) Maghreb de Fes
Ethiopian Coffee (ETH)-(EGY) Al-Ahly
Tonnerre (BEN)-(MLI) Stade Malien
Recreativo do Libolo (ANG)-(NGA) Sunshine Stars
URA (UGA)-(MLI) Djoliba
Liga Muculmana (MOZ)-(ZIM) Dynamos
Dolphins (NGA)-(CMR) Coton Sport
Berekum Chelsea (GHA)-(MAR) Raja Casablanca
Platinum (ZIM)-(SDN) Al-Merreikh
Brikama United (GAM)-(TUN) Esperance ST
Zamalek (EGY)-(CIV) Africa Sports
Power Dynamos (ZAM)-(COD) Mazembe
APR FC (RWA)-(TUN) Etoile du Sahel
ASO Chlef (ALG)-(COD) Vita Club
JSM Bejaia (ALG)-(CIV) AFAD Djekanou