Libya will be the unlikely setting when the African Champions League group phase kicks off today.
Al-Ittihad are the first club from the north African country to get this far and they host two-time title-holders JS Kabylie of Algeria in Tripoli to launch a 24-fixture pool program involving eight clubs.
Esperance of Tunisia face ASEC Mimosas of Ivory Coast at Al-Menzah Stadium in Tunis the following evening, followed by FAR Rabat of Morocco against Etoile Sahel of Tunisia at Moulay Abdallah Stadium in the Moroccan capital.
The first round finishes on Sunday evening, when defending champions Al-Ahly of Egypt, chasing a record third consective title, play Al-Hilal of Sudan at the 80,000-capacity Cairo Stadium. FAR and Etoile look a cut above their rivals in the weaker Group A and Ahly, ASEC and Esperance should slug it out for the two semi-finals slots from Group B, where even outsiders Hilal look no pushovers.
Only the bravest pundit would predict the likely champions at this stage, especially as the coach of obvious choice Ahly admits his star-laced squad are weary after endless domestic and international commitments.
Manuel Jose from Portugal rested his entire first-choice line-up for the closing fixtures of the national championship, including midfield maestros Mohamed Aboutraika and Mohamed Barakat.
Hilal may be new kids on the Champions League group block, but they are one of just four clubs to defeat Ahly in their Cairo fortress, achieving the feat three years ago thanks to a Richard Gastin goal.
Gastin remains part of a squad coached by Brazilian Ricardo Ferreira, whose array of Sudanese stars is bolstered by Mozambican midfielder Dario Khan and Nigerian striker Kelechi Osunwa.
Most leading African clubs boast a "foreign legion" and Ittihad are no exception with Serb coach Branko Smiljanic choosing from a squad that includes Brazilian, Burkinabe, Cameroonian and Guinean imports.
Kabylie were a bitter disappointment at the same stage last year, amassing just four points of a possible 18, although Mali-born Oumar Dabo is a threat given his ability to score consistently at this level.
FAR and Etoile renew an explosive rivalry after a stormy end to the second tier African Confederation Cup final last year, which the Tunisians won on away goals after two draws.
Moroccan fury at a disallowed injury-time second-leg goal led to Tunisian police having to rescue the South African referee and the man in the middle this time, Malian Komlan Coulibaly, will hope for a more peaceful time.
With Ahly the probable group winners, the fixtures between Esperance and ASEC assume added importance with the team taking the most points set to reach the semi-finals of a competition offering a one million dollar first prize.
Esperance must overcome domestic close season "rust" while the visitors are experiencing unusually poor national league form with two draws and a loss in their last three outings.
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