Shock as the holders miss out

By Mark Gleeson
The field for the group phase of this year’s tournament features five teams who have yet to compete in the last eight of the continent’s top club competition since the introduction
of the new format 13 years ago.

The flurry of fresh faces follows a devastating swath of upsets in the last of the knockout rounds, including the elimination of the holders for a second successive season.

In 2008 it was Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel who suffered a humiliating exit before they could properly defend their title, while this year it was the turn of all-conquering Al Ahly, with the Egyptian side being edged out on the away-goals rule.

Their 2-2 draw at home to Kano Pillars of Nigeria came as a huge surprise and hastened the planned departure of coach Manuel Jose, who is now preparing to take up the cause of Angola as they get ready to host the African Nations Cup in January.

The Egyptians had looked all set to progress after forcing a 1-1 draw in the first leg. However, they were caught with two sucker punches in the return leg and, despite staging a dramatic comeback in the last 20 minutes, they still ended up one goal shy of advancing.

They were joined on the sidelines by ASEC Abidjan of Ivory Coast, who were foiled in their bid for a record 10th appearance in the group phase over the past 13 years.

They were knocked out by the tournament’s biggest surprise, Monomotapa of Zimbabwe, a team who are making their debut in continental competition. If their inexperience was not enough of a handicap, they are also having to overcome the vagaries of the ruined economic in their country.

ASEC had only a fragile 1-0 lead from their home leg and Monomotapa overhauled them with a goal from Daniel Kamunenga two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the second leg in Harare to win 2-1 on aggregate.

ASEC’s defeat ended French coach Patrick Liewig’s four-year tenure at the club and he was replaced by former striker Maxime Gouamene.

Also out are last year’s runners-up, Cotonsport of Cameroon, who were beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Heartland from south-east Nigeria, a club who were known as Iwuanyanwu Nationale until 2006.

In addition to Monomotapa and the two Nigerian sides, the other newcomers to this stage are Al Merreikh of Sudan and Zambia’s Zesco United, the first time a club from the copper-rich country has made it to the group phase.

Joining those going through are Sudan’s Al Hilal, two-time winners TP Mazembe of DR Congo and 2007 champions Etoile Sahel.

Ordinarily, Etoile might be considered favourites given their previous exploits, but they are not the force they were 24 months ago. This year they could only finish third in the Tunisian championship and recently sacked German coach Gernot Rohr.

As a result, the absence of some of the bigger names leaves the outcome of this year’s competition wide open.