Ahly looking like favourites again

No sooner had the draw for the 2009 CAF Champions League qualifying rounds been made on Thursday than Egyptian giants Al-Ahly assumed their traditional role as title favourites.

There are eight other former champions in the field, but none appears an overwhelming threat to the Cairo Red Devils' pursuit of a record seventh success in the premier African Football Confederation club competition.

Ahly moved ahead of bitter domestic rivals Zamalek last month by being crowned champions a sixth time with a 4-2 aggregate triumph over surprise finalists Cotonsport Garoua of Cameroon. Never one to sit on his laurels, Ahly coach Manuel Jose has been linked by the Egyptian media with Niger-born Cotonsport striker Daouda Kamilou, second highest scorer in the Champions League this year with seven goals.

Financial muscle
Interest in Kamilou comes after Ahly failed to woo 13-goal leading Champions League marksman Stephen Worgu, with the Enyimba star preferring a move to Al-Merreikh of Sudan. Unlike most sub-Saharan clubs who cannot afford to retain stars, Ahly have the financial muscle to keep stalwarts like midfielders Mohamed Aboutraika, Mohamed Barakat and Ahmed Hassan, and Angola-born striker Flavio Amado.

After a first-round bye, Ahly will probably face Young Africans of Tanzania, who should prove too powerful for debutants Etoile d'Or Mirontsy from the Comoros Islands in an East African showdown. Assuming the Red Devils clear that hurdle, they would face AS Douanes of Senegal, the yet-to-be-determined Sierra Leone champions, Kano Pillars of Nigeria, or Elect Sport of Chad.

Was Cotonsport's appearance in the continental club showpiece a flash in the pan, or has Cameroon finally found worthy contenders for a title that has eluded the central African nation for 28 years? Daring Club Motema Pembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo or Mangasport of Gabon can provide awkward second-round opposition, and if Cotonsport survive, they are likely to face Heartland of Nigeria or FAR Rabat of Morocco.

FAR, Club Africain and Etoile Sahel of Tunisia, Canon Yaounde of Cameroon, Tout Puissant Mazembe of DR Congo, Asante Kotoko of Ghana, ASEC Mimosas of Côte d'Ivoire and JS Kabylie of Algeria are the other former champions.

A Merreikh squad tired of existing in the lengthy shadow of Omdurman neighbours Al-Hilal could be a good outside bet for a mini-league place, especially with arch-predator Worgu bolstering an already seasoned squad.

Hat-trick hopefuls
CS Sfaxien last month became the first club to successfully defend the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup, pipping fellow Tunisian club Etoile Sahel on the away-goal rule after two draws. They should be confident of defeating Hay al-Arab of Sudan or Al-Ahly Benghazi of Libya when they launch their challenge for a 'hat-trick' and permanent retention of the trophy.

Entente Setif of Algeria may prove a serious threat to a Tunisian dominance that stretches three years, with Etoile winning in 2006 and the 'Black Eagles' begin against Prisons of Tanzania or African newcomers Khalij Sert of Libya.

South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe recently enticed French coach Henri Michel to Mamelodi Sundowns and anything less than a convincing victory over Vacoas of Mauritius or Adema of Madagascar would be unthinkable.

First round fixtures in both competitions kick off on 30 January and in a break with tradition there will be only a one-week gap between the two legs of the final in the Champions League and Confederation Cup.