JOHANNESBURG - Five newcomers will feature in the group phase of the African Champions League this week, marking a potential shake-up in the established order of African club football. The elimination of defending champions Al Ahli of Egypt and the champions of several other fancied countries in the preliminary knockout rounds has thrown the field wide open. Only Tunisia's Etoile Sahel and TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo have won previously but Mazembe's last success was almost four decades ago. Etoile achieved their only Champions League success two years ago but several coaching and personnel changes since have left the club without any major sense of authority going into the league phase. A winner could come from among the debutants who include two Nigerian clubs, and for the first time, one from Zambia. Kano Pillars knocked out Al Ahli in the last qualifying round in May, progressing on the away goals rule in one of the biggest upsets in African club competitions in recent years. The Nigerian club play in Saturday's opening match when they travel to Chililabombwe to face Zesco United of Zambia, the first team from the southern African country to reach the last eight since the Champions League format was introduced 13 years ago. CASH-STRAPPED Monomotapa of Zimbabwe also overcame heavy odds to reach the last eight, the second side from the cash-strapped country to defy the odds and qualify. Monomotapa had to scrape together scarce foreign exchange to pay for away trips and will face similar travails for three upcoming away matches in Group B. They start at home to Etoile Sahel in Harare on Sunday. The potential winners could come from the two Sudanese sides drawn together in Group A. Al Hilal and Al Merreikh's bitter domestic rivalry will now spill onto the continental arena and Saturday's match-up at Merreikh's ground in Khartoum will offer an early glimpse at the potential for the pair to become the first Sudanese champions. The top two teams in each group advance to the semifinals in October with the double leg final scheduled in November. The winners will represent Africa in the Club World Cup, in Abu Dhabi in December.
16 July 2009
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