Following the elimination of holders Al Ahli the field is wide open in this season’s Champions League.
By Mark Gleeson in Cape Town
The wide open field in this year’s African Champions League has been emphasised by the early results in the group stages, where no credible candidates have yet emerged as potential sem-finalists, or indeed winners.
The surprise elimination of holders Al Ahli in the preliminary knockout round, along with other supposedly strong contenders from Algeria, Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa, has left the field somewhat threadbare but full of potential nevertheless.
Five of the eight teams in the group phase have never progressed this far before in the Champions League. Indeed some of the clubs had not even been founded when the new format of the competition was introduced in 1997.
The early exchanges of the competition have gone, mostly with home form, only Zambia’s Zesco United looking likely to drop out of contention early on.
Kano Pillars, who conquered Al Ahli in the third round, picked up a potentially invaluable away point in their first Group A match in Zambia and followed it up with a 3-1 win over Al Merreikh of Sudan in their second game. Their stadium in Kano has been refurbished ahead of the World Under-17 Championships and striker Victor Namo has become the key striker in competition.
Al Merreikh were expected to be dominate the group along with their compatriots Al Hilal, whose bitter domestic rivalry has now been given a new stage with their pairing in the same group in this Champions League campaign.
But Al Merreikh were held at home by Al Hilal in their first game, a result adjudged disappointing to see the club fire their Croatian coach Rodonin Gacanin, who had only been in the job for five months. Al Hilal share top place with Kano in the group after they won their second match at home to Zesco, albeit by a single goal.
In Group B, all four sides have won their home matches, giving little indication of potential semifinalists. Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel were the pre-group favourites given they won the Champions League two years ago but their side is much changed in the interim 24 months and also went into the group matches at the same time as they began pre-season preparations.
They were therefore beaten in their first game in Zimbabwe by rookies Monomotapa, who scored an early goal and then held on for a 2-1 win in Harare. Etoile went home two weeks later to beat TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo, albeit having to fight back after conceding another early goal.
Heartland won their first points with a 3-1 home win over Monomotapa while Mazembe’s points came against the Nigerian side on the first weekend of group action.