Al Ahly launch group campaign behind closed doors

Al Ahly fans at a game in 2011
Al Ahly fans will be banned from the game against Wydad Casablanca because of trouble at a previous match

The group phase of the Champions League starts this weekend with six-time champions Al Ahly back in the familiar role of title favourites.

The Egyptians host 1992 winners Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in a Group B fixture in Cairo on Sunday.

But the game will be played behind closed doors as punishment for the Cairo club.

This is because of the unruly crowd behaviour in the final qualifying round.

Former title holders Mouloudia Alger of Algeria and Esperance of Tunisia - the other contenders for two semi-finals slots from an all-North Africa pool clash in Algiers on Sunday.

Morocco are the only country with two challengers for the $1.5m first prize and three-time champions Raja Casablanca have home advantage over 2008 runners-up Cotonsport Garoua of Cameroon in Group A.

Enyimba, the only Nigerian club to lift the trophy that symbolises African club supremacy and one of just three sides to successfully defend the title, host twice runners-up Al-Hilal of Sudan in the same mini-league.

The latest edition of the premier Pan-African club competition began last January with defending champions TP Mazembe from DR Congo favoured to complete a title hat-trick.

But the 2010 Fifa Club World Cup runners-up were disqualified after reaching the group phase for using an ineligible player and the status of team-to-beat switched to Ahly despite unimpressive progress through the qualifiers.

An Egyptian team rusty from lack of competitive practice owing to the popular uprising that toppled authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak squeezed past SuperSport United of South Africa and ZESCO United of Zambia.

Although boasting an attack including leading 2010 Africa Cup of Nations scorer Mohamed 'Geddo' Nagy, Ahly managed just three goals in four outings and had to rely on a stingy defence marshalled by veteran Wael Gomaa to survive.

Several factors, including a return to form that brought a seventh national league title in a row and the influence of Portuguese coach Manuel Jose in his third spell at the 'Red Devils', have elevated them to potential champions.

Wydad were eliminated by Mazembe only to get a reprieve when their conquerors were kicked out, and they scored three late goals to sink Simba of Tanzania in a Cairo play-off to decide who replaced the Congolese in the group draw.

Esperance travel west to Algiers buoyant after clinching the national title, while Mouloudia were lucky to dodge relegation, finishing one point above the drop zone thanks to a last-round draw at fellow strugglers JS Kabylie.

While Ahly and Esperance look strongest in Group B, the other pool is harder to call with little seemingly separating the four teams in their quest for semi-finals places.

Playing before their supporters should bring Raja and Enyimba maximum points although both the Moroccans and Nigerians need to up their game after some unconvincing qualifying performances in Casablanca and Aba.

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