FIFA Club World Cup semi-finalists Al-Ahly of Egypt start the defense of the CAF Champions League away to the winners of a preliminary tie between Saint Michel United of Seychelles or Tusker of Kenya.
Al-Ahly are among nine winners of the premier African club competition included in the lineup for next year.
The draw for the three, two-leg qualifying rounds made behind closed doors in Cairo during the weekend was released on Monday.
Zamalek of Egypt, Vita of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Orlando Pirates of South Africa, Asante Kotoko of Ghana and Union Douala of Cameroon feature in the preliminary round, while TP Mazembe of the DRC, Esperance of Tunisia and Setif of Algeria got byes.
A powerful 56-club field chasing a US$1.5 million first prize also includes five former winners of other CAF titles in Bizertin of Tunisia, the Enugu Rangers of Nigeria, FUS Rabat of Morocco, Horoya of Guinea and Al-Merreikh of Sudan.
Al-Ahly edged Esperance 3-2 over two legs to win a record seventh title last month and the two North African giants will be the teams to beat again next year, along with 2010 Club World Cup runners-up Mazembe.
Conquering Africa earned Al-Ahly a fourth shot this month at the club world title in Japan. They defeated local champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1 in a quarter-final to secure a last-four clash with Brazilian side Corinthians.
The Cairo Red Devils won this year’s Champions League after defying the odds by playing all but one of seven home fixtures behind closed doors and entering CAF matches “cold,” with domestic soccer barred since February.
Al-Ahly and other Egyptian sides involved in international games had to play in empty stadiums because of security fears after 74 deaths in Port Said riots after Al-Ahly lost a league match there against local club Al-Masry.
Assuming the Red Devils see off Tusker or Michel, they are to face Bizertin, Al-Ittihad of Libya, Dynamos of Zimbabwe or Correctional Services of Lesotho for a place in the group phase, where the prize money kicks in.
Esperance have appeared in the past three finals — beating Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and losing to Mazembe and Al-Ahly — and start another title challenge away to Primeiro Agosto of Angola or AS Adema of Madagascar.
Mazembe, winners twice and semi-finalists once in the past four Champions League competitions, should not be unduly troubled by Maxaquene of Mozambique or the Mochudi Centre Chiefs of Botswana.
Success for the Congolese would set up a last-16 showdown with Pirates, provided the South Africans atone for poor recent results in Africa by defeating Djabal of Comoros Islands and Zanaco of Zambia or Mbabane Swallows of Swaziland.
Zamalek, the second most successful Champions League club after Cairo rivals Al-Ahly with five titles, face Gazelle of Chad, Vita play Dynamic of Togo, Kotoko tackle Ela Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and Douala confront LISCR of Liberia.
Setif, hoping to bring the trophy back to Algeria after a 23-year absence, begin against the winners of a tie between ASPAC of Benin and ASFA Yennenga of Burkina Faso.
The three qualifying rounds begin on Feb. 15 next year and end on May 5, with the eight second-round winners advancing to the group phase and the losers to the play-offs in the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup.