Al Ahly prepare to defend their Champions League crown

Al Ahly fans
Al Ahly fans

Egypt's Al-Ahly begin the hunt for a record third consecutive Caf Champions League title this weekend when they travel to Young Africans of Tanzania.

Ahly are one of eight former African champions who feature in the first round of the continent's premier club competition.

Ahly have struggled to find form in their domestic league, but will be buoyed by their recent success in the Caf Super Cup where they defeated Tunisian visitors CS Sfaxien 3-2.

Ahly's Tanzanian opponents on Saturday will look to their striker Mrisho Ngasa to continue his rich vein of form. Ngasa, who had unsuccessful 2009 trials with the English Premier League side West Ham, scored a hat-trick in each leg when Young Africans went on a 12-goal preliminary-round romp.

Apart from Ngasa, Ahly will be wary of Burundian Didier Kavumbagu and Ugandan Hamis Kiiza, who each netted twice against the outclassed Comorans.

Wael Gomaa, Ahly's veteran 38-year-old defender, is included in their squad for the last-32 clash in Dar es Salaam. It follows his announcement that he will retire at the end of the season. Ahly coach Mohamed Youssef has already had to contend with the retirements last year of midfield icons Mohamed Abou Trika and Mohamed Barakat.

"They were key players," admitted Youssef to reporters.

"Injuries have not helped us either and contributed heavily to three national league losses."

Veteran, injury-prone striker Emad Moteab has shaken off a hamstring problem and could face the Tanzanians beside young two-goal Super Cup star Amr Gamal.

Young Africans Dutch coach Hans van der Pluijm knows Ahly, having been in charge of Ghanaians Berekum Chelsea when they drew and lost against them in the 2012 Champions League.

"Ahly are very strong and know how to play these qualifiers," he told reporters.

"We do not fear them and will do everything to qualify for the next round."

Ahly's Egyptian compatriots Zamalek have home advantage over Angolans Kabuscorp. Zamalek won the last of five titles 12 years ago and face rivals bolstered by the signing of Democratic Republic of Congo playmaker Tresor Mputu.

Nigerians Enyimba, champions in 2003 and 2004, also play at home first and should prove too strong for Malians Real Bamako.

It will be a shock if 1988 title-holders Entente Setif of Algeria fail to win against visiting Burkinabe outfit ASFA Yennenga, who are regular but generally unsuccessful Champions League campaigners.

Tunisians Esperance, Congolese TP Mazembe and Moroccans Raja Casablanca are former champions who pose potential threats to the hat-trick ambitions of Ahly.

Esperance start in Kenya against Gor Mahia, a side indebted to goalkeeper Jerim Onyango for reaching the first round after he saved two penalties away to Gabonese side Bitam. Scottish coach Bobby Williamson has reminded his players that the Nairobi club achieved the seemingly impossible against Esperance in 1987 by winning the African Cup Winners Cup final.

Mazembe face Astres Douala in Cameroon, Raja tackle Horoya in Guinea and 1973 African champions Vita, the second DR Congo challengers, are away to Zimbabweans Dynamos.

Matches are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday with the return fixtures one week later. The 16 aggregate winners enter the final qualifying round.

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