giants fall short in champs league

TUNISIAN club Etoile Sahel will carry the tag of favourites with great discomfort when the 2009 African Champions League group phase kicks off tomorrow.

TUNISIAN club Etoile Sahel will carry the tag of favourites with great discomfort when the 2009 African Champions League group phase kicks off tomorrow.

It has been a bad year for the 10 former titleholders in the African club competition with only Etoile and Tout Puissant Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo surviving the three-round qualifying process.

Among the eight casualties were Al-Ahly of Egypt, the defending champions and favourites to win again this year, Asec Mimosas of Ivory Coast, Club Africain of Tunisia, FAR Rabat of Morocco and Asante Kotoko of Ghana. Etoile, winners two years ago, 1967 and 1968 champions Mazembe and twice runners-up Al-Hilal of Sudan are the only qualifiers to have reached the last-eight stage when the R23,3million prize money kicks in.

Kano Pillars and Heartland of Nigeria, Al-Merreikh of Sudan, Zesco United of Zambia and, most surprising of all, Monomotapa of Zimbabwe complete the line-up for an intriguing 24-fixture mini-league schedule.

Given the number of upsets, with the away-goal victory of Kano over Ahly the biggest, no survivor will feel out of the running for the R8,2million first prize and a place at the 2009 Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Zesco and Kano get the action under way tomorrow in the Zambian copperbelt town of Ndola followed a few hours later by the other Group A clash between domestic arch-rivals Merreikh and Hilal in Omdurman.

Monomotapa start the ball rolling on Sunday against Etoile in Harare with Mazembe hosting Heartland in the other Group B fixture in Lubumbashi, where the locals have not lost since 1988 in the Champions League. Etoile failed on two previous visits to Zimbabwe, and the "Red Devils" prepared under new coach Lofti Rhim for their first pool outing in Johannesburg, where the weather and altitude are similar to Harare.

Debutants Monomotapa have the poorest record of the eight qualifiers, winning their three home fixtures but losing all their away games.

The Harare club also lack a "big name" player while the club from the Tunisian Mediterranean resort of Sousse have several survivors from the trophy-winning squad, including goalkeeper Aymen Methlouthi.

Stars tend to be a scarce commodity in the Champions League as those who make an impact are usually whisked off to the more lucrative leagues of Europe and the Middle East.

Mazembe goal poacher Mputu Mabi is an exception with reports linking him to foreign clubs proving false. He is a potential match winner against a Heartland team that is likely to be severely depleted.

Kano have drawn five consecutive Champions League matches and would probably settle for a similar outcome against Zesco, the first Zambian qualifiers for the group phase.

Merreikh could be the team to watch with Nigerian striker Endurance Idahor a consistent scorer at international level while Hilal were far less impressive in the elimination rounds. Group fixtures continue until mid-September with the top two teams on the standings advancing to two-leg semifinals in October.

The championship wraps up the following month. - Sapa-AFP