Al-Ahly confident despite absent stars

Stars Mohamed Aboutraika and Emad Moteab will be absent when Al-Ahly of Egypt meet ASEC Mimosas of Côte D'Ivoire Saturday in the highlight of a four-match CAF African Champions League programme. Midfielder Aboutraika has not recovered from a nagging knee problem that required an operation in Germany, while a hamstring injury has sidelined striker Moteab for the Group A Abidjan showdown.

The goal poacher should have joined English second-tier league club Bristol City last week only for the transfer to be scrapped because Moteab played in the first round of Champions League against fellow Egyptians Zamalek.

Better news for five-time African champions Ahly is that Angolan midfielder Felisberto 'Gilberto' Amaral is fit after missing the Egypt Super Cup triumph over Zamalek last weekend.

Ahly arrived in the Ivorian commercial capital on Thursday after a 24-hour journey and assistant coach Hossam al-Badri said he was confident the 'Red Devils' could defeat ASEC in Côte D'Ivoire for the second consecutive year.

Aboutraika scored five minutes before half-time last year to give Ahly a vital 1-0 away win at the same stage of the competition, and the Egyptians went on to finish runners-up while the Ivorians failed to make the semi-finals.

"ASEC are a strong team, but we possess footballers with the ability to beat them and move closer to the semi-finals," Al-Badri told reporters in the west African city. "Although the high humidity in Abidjan poses a serious problem for us, I believe the Ahly players are up to the challenge," added the coach who assists Portuguese Manuel Jose.

Under pressure
While Ahly overcame Zamalek 2-1 in the opening round, ASEC lost by the same score away to Dynamos of Zimbabwe in a rematch of the 1998 final which brought the Abidjan club its sole CAF African Champions League title. The reverse added to the pressure on French coach Patrick Liewig, who has to constantly rebuild his team after raids by European clubs to sign relatively cheap young Ivorian stars.

Zamalek, who share with Ahly the record of five Champions League titles, entertain Dynamos on Sunday in the other Group A fixture and both clubs have publicly boasted they will triumph. "We have improved each time we play this season and I am convinced we can gather maximum points against Dynamos," said Tarek Yehia, assistant coach at Zamalek to recently appointed German Reiner Hollmann.

Dynamos coach David Mandigora countered: "I'm sure we can achieve a positive result in Cairo becuase we now have the experience to win away just as we did against Etoile." The Harare club caused the greatest upset of the 2008 Champions League by travelling to Tunisia two months ago and winning 1-0 to eliminate title holders Etoile Sahel in the final qualifying round for the mini-league phase.

Tout Puissant Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Enyimba of Nigeria, who along with Ahly are the only clubs to successfully defend the title, enjoy home advantage in the other group.

Enyimba, considered by many as the greatest threat to Ahly, host Cotonsport Garoua of Cameroon in Aba on Sunday while Mazembe welcome 2007 semi-finalists Al-Hilal of Sudan to the southern Congolese city of Lubumbashi on Saturday.

And the trend of home victories established in the first series of matches two weeks ago is likely to continue in this pool given the poor away records of Cotonsport and Hilal.