Title-holders al-Ahly will have to be at their very best if they intend to realize an unprecedented third running African Champions League trophy this season. The group draw on Monday put the Cairo giants face to face with two tough Arab rivals and Ivorian giants ASEC Mimosas.
The Group B line-up comprises Cairo’s “Red Devils”, former champions Esperance of Tunisia, potential surprise packets Al-Hilal of Sudan and ASEC.
A less intimidating Group A includes former champions FAR Rabat of Morocco and Jeunesse Sportive Kabylie of Algeria, twice runners-up Etoile Sahel of Tunisia and outsiders Al-Ittihad of Libya.
It was the first Champions League draw held outside Africa as officials from the continent gathered in the Swiss city for meetings of world controlling body FIFA.
Al-Ahly will start their quest for a historic third consecutive title on June 22-24 when they host Al-Hilal who convincingly knocked out other Egyptian giants al-Zamalek in the round of 16 with a 4-2 aggregate win.
The title-holders second Group B encounter will be a tough away game in Abidjan to take on ASEC and their third will be at home against Esperance.
The 24-match group program lasts from June 22 to September 2 with the semi-finals scheduled for September and October followed by a two-leg final that also brings the winners a FIFA Club World Championship place.
Ceaseless club and national team commitments have forced Ahly coach Manuel Jose to rest virtually his entire first team this month, leading to two consecutive local league losses for a club unaccustomed to defeat.
Al-Ahly took the rest decision after they had secured their third running local league title and the 32nd title in their century-old history. But the two defeats were bitter ones for the fans of Egypt’s undisputed first team, as they fell to traditional rivals al-Zamalek and Ismaily.
Ahly will particularly fear ASEC, an Abidjan club famed for producing an endless supply of youngsters who rapidly develop into African stars before being lured abroad by superior salaries, facilities and lifestyle.
And French coach Patrick Liewig has added defensive steel to the perennial skill, notably in the final qualifying round last month when they held Wydad Casablanca goalless in Morocco.
The north and west Africa giants clashed in an epic semi-final last year which Ahly shaded 3-2 on aggregate after building a two-goal first leg advantage at their Cairo Stadium fortress.
Ahly had an even tighter tussle with Esperance in the 2001 Champions League semi-finals, squeezing through on away goals after a goalless Cairo stalemate was followed by a 1-1 Tunis deadlock.
Although Hilal will be appearing in the lucrative pool phase for the first time, they will not fear visiting Cairo in the first round after shocking Ahly 1-0 there in a 2004 Champions League qualifier.
Etoile finally shed their domestic bridesmaid tag this month, winning the national title after finishing runners-up seven seasons in a row, only to be rocked by the resignation of coach Fawzi Benzarti.
Etoile showed happiness at the draw that offers them an excellent chance of reaching the last four of a competition offering a one-million-dollar first prize.
FAR, whose 1985 Champions League triumph was the first by a Moroccan club, will also fancy their chances in a group composed exclusively of clubs from Maghreb countries.
African champions in 1981 and 1990, Kabylie are no longer serious contenders for the top prize and after a poor pool showing last year the limit of their ambitions will probably be a semi-finals slot.
Ittihad are the first Libyan qualifiers for the mini-leagues and while a mix of local stars plus imports from Brazil, Burkina Faso and Cameroon could present stiff resistance in Tripoli, they are set to struggle on the road.