Saint George hope to become the first Ethiopian club to reach the Champions League group stage when they host Zamalek of Egypt this weekend in a last-16 return fixture.
The Addis Ababa outfit exceeded expectations with a 1-1 draw against the five-time African champions in Cairo two weeks ago, taking the lead through Oumed Oukri before Abdoulaye Cisse snatched a late equaliser.
After decades in the football doldrums, Ethiopia are on the rise with a Saint George-dominated national squad reaching the 2013 Cup of Nations after a 31-year absence and topping a World Cup qualifying group that includes South Africa.
Having fired eight unanswered goals past Jamhuri of Zanzibar and comfortably disposed of Djoliba of Mali, the Saints find themselves in unchartered territory with a lucrative mini-league slot tantalisingly close.
“It would be amazing to make the group stage,” admits German coach Michael Kruger, who guided Egyptian club Arab Contractors to the 1996 African Cup Winners Cup title.
“”Ahly will qualify – we must not let the first leg result mislead us into complacency as Bizertin are a good team with strong players”
Hossam al-BadryAhly coach
“We must be cautious and determined as Zamalek will come to Addis searching for a win and their continental experience is much broader than that of my players,” he warned.
Brazil-born Zamalek coach Jorvan Vieira remains upbeat despite the first-leg setback in an empty Cairo stadium with supporters barred after ripping seats from fittings during a previous home fixture.
“Zamalek are capable of winning in Ethiopia and reaching the group phase.
In modern football there are no home and away games – you must play to win all your matches.”
Title holders Al-Ahly of Egypt host CA Bizertin of Tunisia in Cairo and must also play behind closed doors because fans threw firecrackers on the pitch during a last-32 victory over Kenyan visitors Tusker.
“Ahly will qualify,” insists coach Hossam al-Badry, whose side played out a 0-0 draw in Tunisia. “We must not let the first leg result mislead us into complacency as Bizertin are a good team with strong players.”
Esperance, runners-up to Ahly last year after winning the 2011 Champions League, should ensure a Tunisian presence at the pool stage after having the better of a 0-0 draw with JSM Bejaia in Algeria.
Youcef Belaili had a goal disallowed and rattled the woodwork and it would be a shock if the ‘Blood and Gold’, who share the record for group appearances with Ahly on 11, fail at home.
TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo have halved admission prices to ensure a capacity 25,000 crowd in southern city Lubumbashi when they try to overtake a 3-1 deficit against Orlando Pirates of South Africa.
Coton Sport of Cameroon, runners-up to Ahly five years ago, have improved dramatically since the competition kicked off in February and a 3-0 lead virtually guarantees overall victory when they face Stade Malien in Mali.
Shock 2012 Confederation Cup winners AC Leopards are poised to become the first Champions League qualifiers from Congo Brazzaville as they take a 3-1 advantage over Entente Setif to Algeria.
Sewe San Pedro of Ivory Coast and FUS Rabat of Morocco are deadlocked at 1-1 ahead of an Abidjan showdown while Recreativo Libolo of Angola have a slight edge over Enugu Rangers after a goalless first leg in Nigeria.
While the eight aggregate winners advance to the six-round mini-league phase between July and September, the losers drop to the second-tier Confederation Cup and play-offs during May and June against last-16 winners in that competition.