Harras a stern test for grieving Bayelsa United

GRIEVING Bayelsa United of Nigeria are away to Harras al-Hodoud of Egypt today in the opening 2009 group fixture of the African Confederation Cup.

GRIEVING Bayelsa United of Nigeria are away to Harras al-Hodoud of Egypt today in the opening 2009 group fixture of the African Confederation Cup.

United captain Abel Tador was shot dead by thieves last month just hours after helping the club from the troubled south-east region win the national championship. The death of the defensive midfielder came just a few weeks after two other members of the Bayelsa squad were killed in the oil-producing Niger Delta, where violence has become endemic.

Appearing in African competition for the first time, Bayelsa overcame a slow start to achieve a couple of impressive triumphs, banging in nine goals in two home fixtures.

And the Nigerians are no one-star band with six marksmen led by three-goal Stanley Ohawuchi contributing to the elimination of Club 57 of Congo, Aigle Royal Menoua of Cameroon and Kampala City Council of Uganda.

But Harras, a paramilitary club based in the ancient Mediterranean city of Alexandria, represent a step up in class and boast the best record among the eight qualifiers for the group phase of the second-tier African competition.

They are the only unbeaten survivors, winning four matches and drawing two, and Ahmed Abdelmalek is joint leading scorer with five goals in the Confederation Cup this year.

Hodoud are also the most experienced contenders with two previous appearances in the competition and after a timid 2006 exit came close to reaching the final last year. Stade Malien, the first Malian qualifiers, host Angolan military club Primeiro Agosto tomorrow in the other Group B fixture and home advantage will probably prove decisive.

Both Group A games are scheduled for Sunday with Entente Setif of Algeria at home to Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of Congo and ENPPI of Egypt away to surprise package Santos of Angola. Setif and Vita are former African champions who scraped into the pool phase with the Algerians needing a shootout to oust Malians Djoliba and a last-gasp penalty giving the Congolese an away-goal win over Cameroonians Cotonsport Garoua.

Entente are the leading scorers with 15 in six matches, but a Vita outfit coached by Irishman Chris O'Loughlin have the tighter defence and an inspirational skipper in four-goal midfielder Bongeli Lofo.

African rookies Santos achieved the seemingly impossible in the final qualifying round by wiping out a 3-0 first-leg deficit against Egyptian maestros Al-Ahly and winning on penalties.

Stuck in the bottom half of the domestic league, unfashionable and without stars, Santos hardly seem title material but 11 goals in three home games should be sufficient warning to ENPPI.

The winning prize money has been doubled to $660000 (R5,37million) this year, and the addition of semifinals should generate more excitement. - Sapa-AFP