Champions League and Algerian Ligue 1 holders ES Setif kick-off on Saturday against USM Alger having won their seventh domestic championship in late May. USM, who finished a disappointing seventh in the league, had their preparations for the group phase thrown into disarray last month when veteran German coach Otto Pfister was dismissed. In his place, a trio of former assistant coaches will lead the team.
If USM's season in the Algerian league was disappointing, MC El Eulma's was nothing short of disastrous as even a victory in their last league match against ASM Oran could not prevent the team from being relegated. And that, even though they were the top scorers in the league. Eulma will be traveling to Sudan, where they face Al Merrikh in Omdurman on Friday in a game of two clubs with a very differing history in the competition. The home side can look back at 20 previous appearances, while Eulma are playing in their first-ever Champions League campaign.
Al Merrikh are coached by Diego Garzitto, who won the Champions League in 2009 with TP Mazembe. The Sudanese club have a number of foreigners in their side and will be looking to strikers Francis Coffie from Ghana and Solomon Jabason for goals to prevent an Algerian sweep. Last season, the Nigerian was part of the Libyan club Al Ahly Benghazi, who stunned Cairo giants Al Ahly in the final qualifying round to advance to the group phase.
Eulma are not the only first-timers in the competition, as Smouha managed to break the stranglehold Zamalek and Al Ahly have on Egyptian participation in the competition. After the record-holders Al Ahly crashed out in qualifying, the Alexandria-based club remain the only Egyptian team competing. They are at home to Moroccan club Moghreb Tetouan, who knocked out Al Ahly. The visitors have a potent strike force and have found the back of the net nine times, with Mouhcine Iajour scoring six of those to top the scorer charts.
Four-time champions TP Mazembe are at home to the second Sudanese club remaining, Al Hilal. The Congo DR club has just turned down a USD 2 million offer from Tunisian club Esperance for Ghanaian striker Solomon Asante as they are eager to challenge for another African title. Their preparations for Sunday's game has not seen them record the best results, as Zimbabwean club FC Platinum held them to a 1-1 draw in Lubumbashi in a friendly, while they were beaten 1-0 in a cup match by Renaissance, prompting coach Patrice Carteron to call for an improvement.
“We have time until Sunday to correct our shortcomings,” he said forthrightly. “We have a big squad with several players vying for the positions. It is up to the players to earn their place and not to think that their name or their status is enough to get on the pitch. The match against Platinum allowed the staff to see very clearly what we need to improve individually and collectively just days before the match against Al Hilal.”
The Ravens' Malian striker Cheibane Traore is confident that they can do well, saying: "We are well prepared for this game. This is a very important match for us. We need to win to start the competition well.”