JOHANNESBURG: Egyptian giants Al Ahli set out in search of an unprecedented third successive African Champions League title this weekend when they host Sudan s Al Hilal in their opening group match.
Al Ahli start as strong favorites in a field of eight sides, seven of which come from the Arabic-speaking north of the continent.
The Egyptians won the last two Champions League titles and have set the ambitious target of a third in a row. If Al Ahli are successful, they will also become the first team to win Africa s top club prize six times. Al Ahli will have Mohamed Aboutrika, the catalyst for their success last year, back from injury for Sunday s match, having overcome a groin strain picked up during Egypt s friendly with Kuwait last week.
Sudanese side Al Hilal compete in the group phase for the first time, on the back of the national team s qualification last weekend for the African Nations Cup finals. Nine players from Al Hilal featured in the 2-0 win in the Seychelles on Saturday that saw Sudan qualify for the competition for the first time since 1976.
A 10th player, Omar Bakheit, missed the match through injury and is also unavailable for the club s trip to Egypt. Also in Group B, Tunisia s Esperance host ASEC Abidjan of the Ivory Coast, the only side from south of the Sahara left in the field. Chakib Lachkham will miss Saturday s game in Tunis through suspension but Esperance have signed Cape Verde striker Adriano to partner Moroccan Hicham Aboucherouane up front. The league phase begins in Tripoli on Friday when Al Ittihad of Libya make their debut in Group A. They host JS Kabylie of Algeria, who won Africa s top club prize in 1981 and 1990. The Algerians will be unable to use their new Malian recruit Issa Traore, whose transfer from Iran has been held up by missing paperwork. Group A s other match is a meeting between Morocco s Royal Armed Forces and Etoile Sahel of Tunisia, who played out a tempestuous final of the African Confederation Cup last year. The Morocco army side host Saturday s game in Rabat against an Etoile side playing their first match under new French coach Bertrand Marchand. The top two finishers in the two groups advance to the semi-finals. The winner of the Champions League plays in December in the Club World Cup in Japan.