Club giants start group trek

Eight clubs are left in the CAF Champions League, spread into two four-team groups. The top two teams in each advance to the semi-finals with the winner of the competition representing Africa in the annual FIFA Club World Cup at the end of the year.

A second life for Sundowns

Having been knocked out of the CAF Champions League by AS Vita Club in the play-off round, South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns were handed an unexpected lifeline when the Congo DR club were disqualified from the competition for fielding an ineligible player. “We have been given a second chance in the Champions League and have to show that we deserve to be there,” South African Footballer of the Season Khama Billiat said.

The Zimbabwean international and his team will travel to Algeria for their opening Group B game against 2014 champions ES Setif. “Playing against the biggest sides in the competition is always exciting for any player because that’s where you really get the opportunity to test yourselves individually and as a collective,” Billiat added.

The other match in the group sees two-time champions Enyimba at home in Port Harcourt to Zamalek, who have won the showpiece event of African football five times, although their last success dates back to 2002. Enyimba goalkeeper Theophilus Afelokhai is aware that they are taking on a strong opponent.

“They have won the competition several times and they will be coming with a lot of confidence and experience and we must be ready for that," Afelokhai said. "But we hope to start the competition well by winning.”

The Egyptians, who travel to Nigeria with a new coach in Mohamed Helmy after former Scotland coach Alex McLeish parted ways with the Cairo giants after just 65 days, have all but lost their Egyptian title to rivals Al Ahly and now seek consolation from the Champions League. Helmy was disappointed the way his side gave away two late goals late in their league match on the weekend.

"Players have to learn from conceding two goals during the El-Shorta game as the game was ours to lose," Helmy said. "It is a good lesson for the players ahead of the CAF Champions League game. Enyimba is expected to be very difficult so we have to concentrate on the game."

Chasing a ninth title The only club to have won the competition more often than Zamalek are city rivals Al Ahly, who return to the group stages after a two year absence. The eight-time winners open their campaign on the road with a trip to Zambia, where they take on Ndola-based ZESCO United. The Zambian team will go into the continental clash full of confidence after moving to the top of their domestic league by beating previous leaders Nkana Red Devils 1-0 on the weekend.

Coach George Lwandamina, who doubles up as national team coach, has temporarily taken a leave of absence from the Chipolopolo, who are currently involved in the regional COSAFA Cup. He said recently that he does not want to read too much into the victory against Nkana.

“The situation against Al Ahly will be different because they will not play like Nkana," Lwandamina explained. "We cannot say our game will be this and that, but I am sure we can put up a good game and even win."

However, his tough task to secure a result against the Red Devils will be made even more difficult due to the absence of leading scorer Jesse Were and defender Ben Adama, who are both suspended for the clash in the Levy Patrick Mwanawasa Stadium.

The Kenyan Were has already scored ten Zambian league goals this season and scored twice in the Champions League. In his absence, much will be expected from Idris Ilunga Mbombo. The Congolese striker has scored four goals in the Champions League this season.

Al Ahly coach Martin Jol will also be without one of his best strikers as Gabonese international Malick Evouna injured his ankle in their last league match. Evouna will be out of action for three weeks and will also miss Ahly's second game against ASEC Mimosas. There was some good news for Jol though, as Ahmed Hegazy has been cleared to play in the match. The defender was out for a month with a hamstring injury.

Wydad, who knocked out the defending champions TP Mazembe in the play-off round, are away to ASEC Mimosas in their first match. The Moroccans were runners-up the last time they competed in the competition in 2011. The Côte d'Ivoire side has been trying to strengthen their squad by signing Ghanaian Yahaya Mohammed from Aduana Stars, though their attempts have to now been unsuccessful.