CAIRO: Zamalek will be one of the most prominent Arab teams in the 11-month climb to the summit of African club football beginning this weekend with a first round of Champions League qualifiers featuring six former title holders.
Canon Yaounde of Cameroon, Esperance of Tunisia, JS Kabylie of Algeria, TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and Zamalek enjoy home advantage and should build first-leg leads.
Another former champion, Asante Kotoko of Ghana, launch their campaign next weekend as five players from opponents Ports Authority of Gambia are involved in the African youth championship in the Congo.
Defending champions Al-Ahly of Egypt and two other clubs who have lifted a trophy that symbolizes African supremacy, ASEC of Ivory Coast and FAR Rabat of Morocco, received byes into the second round set for March.
Whichever club emerges triumphant in mid-November will have played at least 14 matches and possibly 16 in vastly different conditions with limited travel options forcing many challengers to fly via European cities.
Zamalek, who share with bitter Cairo rivals Ahly the record of five African Champions League titles, are a much improved side since the arrival last month of widely traveled French coach Henri Michel.
The White Knights confront Vital O of Burundi, who made little impression in the recent East and Central Africa championship in Rwanda and seem unlikely to trouble opponents who last raised the cup five years ago.
These demands partly explain why teams found it so difficult to successfully defend the title with Mazembe (1967-1968) the only one to achieve the feat until Enyimba of Nigeria (2003-2004) and Ahly (2005-2006) bucked the trend.
The desire to be crowned club kings of Africa remains fierce despite no prize money being on offer until the eight-club group phase with Canon and Wydad turning to South America for reinforcements.
Fearing a lack of fire power, three-time winners Canon signed Brazilian strikers Washington dos Santos and Godofredo Netto while 1992 winners Wydad lured midfielder Claudio Ortiz and striker Christian Jeandet from Argentina.
Canon have arguably the toughest task of the sextet at home to Etoile, who completed a league and cup double in Congo, then signed Romanian coach Nicolae Burcea to signal greater ambitions.
Etoile club president Rene Oba longs to make an impression at international level and a 3-0 win away to Energy of Benin in a warm-up match suggests Canon should be wary of the Brazzaville outfit.
Moroccan entrants often dish out hidings to Mauritanian visitors and damage limitation is likely to be high on the agenda of ASC Mauritel when they tackle Wydad.
Esperance of Tunisia, champions in 1994 and runners-up two years in a row, change coaches with alarming frequency and Frenchman Jacky Dugueperoux is the latest occupant of the hot seat.
Anything less than a semi-finals spot will be deemed a failure by Blood and Gold officials and it would be a shock if they did not overcome Renaissance of Chad with at least three goals to spare.
The Tunisians have been boosted by the signing of Moroccan striker Hicham Aboucherouane, who spent time at Al-Nasr of Saudi Arabia and Lille of France between spells with three-time African champions Raja Casablanca.
Kabylie face Balantas of Guinea Bissau while Mazembe host Police of Botswana in Kinshasa because the poor state of their Lubumbahsi ground led to it being barred from staging international fixtures.
The second-tier African Confederation Cup for national cup winners and 10 third-placed league finishers selected on merit also starts this weekend with a 17-match first-round program.
Meanwhile, Zamalek is continuing to enjoy a revitalized spurt in facing its rivals in the Egyptian league.
On Tuesday, Mostafa Gaafar scored early in the first-half to lead Zamalek to a 1-0 victory over Sports Police Union and guarantee a place in the Egyptian Cup s round of 16 on Tuesday.
Zamalek will face first division side Bany Sweif, who surprisingly knocked out Ghazl Mahalla, in the competition s round of 16.
Gaafar, who rediscovered his best form in recent matches, opened the score line after just eight minutes when he chested Tarek Al-Sayed s cross at the far post before hitting a right-footed shot into the top corner of the net.
Zamalek could have easily doubled the lead on several occasions but lacked the cutting edge in front of goal.
Youssef Hamdi s deft pass beat the offside trap and released Gaafar, who went on one-on-one situation but the keeper blocked his shot.
Gaafar wasted another opportunity shortly afterwards as he went face-to-face with the keeper again but a smart interception from a Police Union defender denied his effort.
Striker Hossam Osama, who made the starting line-up due to the absence of Amr Zaki and Abdul-Halim Ali, almost added the second but his close-range header was tipped by the keeper.
It was no difference in the second-period as Zamalek continued their domination but failed in their attempts to extend the score.
Police Union played with ten men in the last ten minutes after Mohamed Hanafi was sent-off for a second bookable offense. With additional reporting by filgoal.com.