Giant-killers Leopards eye another victim
Congo Brazzaville football club AC Leopards hope to maintain their role as 2012 CAF Confederation Cup giant killers on Saturday when the mini-league phase kicks off.
They host mighty Moroccans Wydad Casablanca in the opening Group B fixture with Malian teams Stade Malien and Djoliba clashing one day later in a Bamako derby.
Sudanese sides dominate Group A with Al Ahly Shandy hosting Al Hilal and Al Merreikh enjoying home advantage over the lone 'outsiders', Angolan police outfit InterClube.
Leopards are based in western city Dolisie and have reached the last eight of the second-tier CAF club competition at the third attempt after first round exits in the past two years.
After an anticipated win over Tempete Mocaf of the Central African Republic in a preliminary tie last March, Leopards stunned two-time Confederation Cup title holders CS Sfaxien of Tunisia.
The star-less Congolese appeared doomed after a 2-1 loss at home only to turn the tie around through a 2-0 triumph far from home through a goal in each half by Eric Niamba.
A surprise win over Heartland of Nigeria followed and the Congolese claimed another big scalp in the play-offs last month, eliminating defending champions Moghreb Fes of Morocco after a drama-packed second leg.
Moghreb had four players sent off and the tie-clinching second Leopards goal came from a penalty kick converted by Yapo Guolelida five minutes into stoppage time.
Wydad finished runners-up to Esperance of Tunisia in the CAF Champions League last year, and edged African rookies AFAD Djekanou of Ivory Coast through a Yassine Lakhal goal to make the group phase.
Moroccan clubs have raised the Confederation Cup three times with FAR Rabat victorious in 2005, neighbours FUS Rabat in 2010 and Moghreb last year after a penalty shootout against Tunisian side Club Africain.
Djoliba are on a domestic roll ahead of the clash with greatest rivals and 2009 Confederation Cup winners Stade having won the league title and made the Cup semifinals.
Ahly versus Hilal in northern Sudanese town Shandy is a classic David and Goliath affair with the former playing in Africa for the first time this year while Hilal have been competing for decades without a trophy to boast of.
Merreikh are the only side from the east African nation to lift a CAF trophy – the 1989 African Cup Winners Cup – while InterClube were unlucky losers to Moghreb in the semifinals last year.
Each club face their three group opponents at home and away and those coming first and second advance to the semifinals of a competition carrying a $660 000 first prize.