The final qualifying round of the CAF Confederation Cup gets under way this weekend with Medeama among 16 teams looking to be among the eight finalists that make up the group phase of the mini competition.
It promises to be a tight contest as there are some seasoned campaigners in the race that include eight teams that dropped from the Orange CAF Champions .
Chief among these is the reigning Champions League holders Al-Ahly from Egypt who take on Moroccan side Difaa El-Jadidi this weekend at Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium
Ahly are among seven African title winners involved in the two-leg play-offs which pit Champions League second round losers against Confederation Cup second round winners.
Congolese AC Leopards and Tunisians Etoile Sahel have lifted the second-tier Confederation Cup, which replaced the African Cup Winners and CAF Cup competitions 10 years ago.
Ivorians ASEC Mimosas have won the Champions League and South Africans Kaizer Chiefs, Guineans Horoya and Tunisians CA Bizertin lifted the Cup Winners Cup.
Once Al Ahly were eliminated from the Champions League after surprising home and away losses to Libyans Al-Ahly Benghazi they were installed as Confederation Cup favourites.
Multi medal-winning defender Wael Gomaa, who intends hanging up his boots permanently later this year at the age of 38, believes the Cairo ‘Red Devils’ can bounce back.
“Ahly can recover quickly,” he assured the Egyptian media. “The defeats by Benghazi are history – you win some football matches and lose others.”
The ‘Red Devils’ are a team in transition with veteran midfield stars Mohamed Abou Trika and Mohamed Barakat leaving large gaps when they retired last year.
Another blow is that striker Emad Moteab, a survivor from the squad that reached four consecutive Champions League finals from 2005 and won three, constantly suffers injuries.
Gomaa and other Ahly defenders know that Ayoub Nanah of Jadidi is the only player to score a hat-trick in 88 Confederation Cup matches this season. His treble at home to Gambians Gamtel followed a first-leg brace and those five goals make him the joint second highest scorer in the 2014 competition.
A now common handicap for Ahly will be the absence of spectators when they host the first leg at the Air Defence Stadium in the Egyptian capital.
Ahly fans clashed with police after the CAF Super Cup victory over Tunisians CS Sfaxien two months ago, leading to a renewal of a ban on supporters.
Kaizer Chiefs have been forced to move the clash with ASEC Mimosas from Soccer City stadium to another Soweto venue, Dobsonville Stadium.
The 95 000-seat national football stadium is being reseeded because of fungus and also has to be readied for a major pre-election rally by the ruling African National Congress.
While Chiefs lost narrowly to Democratic Republic of Congo outfit Vita in the Champions League, ASEC slammed six goals past Algerians CS Constantine in the Confederation Cup.
Tunisian clubs have dominated the 10-year second-tier competition, producing four winners and three runners-up, and Etoile Sahel and Bizertin play away this weekend.
Etoile visit Horoya, whose Champions League ambitions were ended by another Tunisian club, CS Sfaxien, and Bizertin confront Nkana in Kitwe on the Zambian copperbelt.
Bayelsa United, the last Nigerian challengers for a CAF club title this year, visit Ivorians Sewe San Pedro and Leopards host Ghanaians Medeama.
An all-Mali clash between Real Bamako and Djoliba and Cameroonians Coton Sport against Angolans Petro Atletico in cotton city Garoua completes the eight-fixture line-up. Return matches are scheduled for the weekend of 25-27 April and a draw in Cairo on 29 April will split the eight qualifiers into two groups.
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