After three previous knockout rounds, the CAF Champions League enters the eight-team group stage this weekend as clubs from six nations begin the fight for the semi-finals. The eventual goal is November’s two-legged final and ultimately the single place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012.
Game of the week
Al Ahly–TP Mazembe
Two imposing histories will collide behind closed doors in Cairo on Sunday. Iconic Egyptian side Ahly are only four years removed from their historic Champions League run of three wins out of four tournaments, while Mazembe in the meantime won the event in 2009 and 2010. The Congolese club have not been eliminated on the pitch since the year of Ahly’s last title, since they were disqualified last term for fielding an ineligible player. In the middle of their league season, the visitors figure to be sharper than their hosts, while Egypt will not begin play on their new domestic calendar until the end of the summer. A training camp in Turkey and the arrival of Ivorian striker Oussou Konan have lifted coach Hossam El Badry, back in the Ahly hot-seat for the second time, although veteran defender Wael Gomaa appears set to miss out through a calf injury. The two clubs are conscious of gathering points quickly in Group B, which also features another giant Zamalek and a club trying to be the second Chelsea in the World Club Cup.
The other matches
In action on Saturday at Ghana’s Berekum Chelsea, named after the current European champions, Zamalek are suffering from the same lack of match practice as cross-town rivals Ahly. The Whites have also been in turmoil off the pitch with Ahmed 'Mido' Hossam departing to England, and 'Shikabala' seemingly set to follow – perhaps to Italy – after a high-profile confrontation with veteran coach Hassan Shehata. Striker Razak Omotoyossi's future at the club is in doubt after a pay dispute, and recent attacking signing Abdoulaye Cisse might make his debut. The match will be played in Accra, some 400km from Chelsea's home, but the underdogs have been drawing heart from their earlier-round triumphs: beating three-time African champions Raja Casablanca as well as 2008 runners-up Coton Sport. They also have the tournament's top scorer in Emmanuel Clottey, who has bulged the net six times in as many matches.
After a short stint under coach Michel Decastel, defending champions Esperance are once again being guided by Nabil Maaloul, who led the Tunisian club to a treble last term. The former international has steadied the ship domestically, but a tough trip to Nigeria to face a gritty Sunshine Stars team in Group A will not be easy. The Champions League debutantes have not lost in the league at home all year and their defence is notoriously tight in front of their supporters. The other Tunisian representative Etoile du Sahel have also won the Champions League, in 2007, and they start on the road as well, at ASO Chlef. With a host of new faces before the new start of domestic action, the Algerians might struggle against Sahel in the midst of their season.
Player to watch
With talk of crisis at Zamalek, captain Abdul-Wahed Al-Sayed has reportedly settled some nerves by a signing a new contract. At the club since 1999, the 35-year-old goalkeeper is a tie to the club's last Champions League crown in 2002.
The Stat 15 – The number of continental titles shared by the Group A trio of Al Ahly (six), Zamalek (five), TP Mazembe (four).
What they said
Hans van der Pluijm, Berekum Chelsea coach: “Big names do not win football matches, big hearts do. We will give it our best shot."
Have your say
Who will get off to the best start in Groups A and B?