JOHANNESBURG. — The 16 teams that have qualified for this year’s expanded CAF Champions’ League group stages have all been confirmed, with holders Mamelodi Sundowns joined by three other clubs from the COSAFA region. Sundowns had to dig deep at the Phillip Omondi Stadium in Kampala against Ugandan champions KCCA, securing their passage courtesy of a late strike by Anthony Laffor, which saw them win 3-2 on aggregate.
Also through to the group stages, which this year comes with prize money of at least $550 000, are Zimbabwean champions CAPS United, who muscled their way past Congolese powerhouse TP Mazembe.
Having gallantly fought to a 1-1 draw in Lubumbashi, CAPS United held on for a goalless draw at home at the National Sports Stadium in Harare on Sunday, which handed them a group-stage ticket courtesy of the away goals rule.
In fact, Democratic Republic of Congo club TP Mazembe were the major casualties of the CAF Champions League last-32 stage that was completed at the weekend.
The five-time African champions from mining hub Lubumbashi could only draw 0-0 with CAPS United in Harare and lost the tie on away goals rule.
CAPS United caused a first leg shock the previous weekend by drawing 1-1 in the DRC after taking a 45-second lead.
It is the first time in 14 attempts since the premier African club competition was remodelled in 1997 that TP Mazembe have fallen at the first qualifying hurdle.
CAPS United were unexpected giant-killers as they struggled to oust modest Lioli of Lesotho in the preliminary round last month.
The Harare-based outfit made early exits in three previous Champions League appearances.
As in the first leg, CAPS goalkeeper Edmore “ZiKeeper” Sibanda made several fine saves in Harare and also stepped forward to test his opposite number with a long-range free-kick.
TP Mazembe exerted intense late pressure without managing to score the goal they needed to avoid failing to reach the group stage for the second year in a row.
The Congolese fell to Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in a 2016 last-16 tie, but that round has since been dropped, with the group stage expanded from eight clubs to 16.
CAPS United were not the only southern African club celebrating as Ferroviario Beira of Mozambique and Zanaco of Zambia booked group débuts.
So did regular African campaigners Saint George, the first Ethiopian club to achieve the feat.
Ferroviario won on penalties after losing 2-0 to Barrack Young Controllers in Monrovia, with the crowd including 1995 World Footballer of the Year George Weah of Liberia.
Zanaco squeezed through on away goals rule after drawing 0-0 in Lusaka against Young Africans of Tanzania and Saint George did a double over AC Leopards of Congo Brazzaville with a 2-0 home win.
Record eight-time champions Al Ahly of Egypt survived two late first-half scares to hold Wits 0-0 in South Africa and advance 1-0 on aggregate.
A header from Frank Mhango forced a great save by Sherif Ekramy and the Malawian struck the post from the resulting corner.
Five-time African title-holders Zamalek of Egypt were comfortable overall winners despite losing 2-1 to Enugu Rangers in Nigeria.
Etoile Sahel of Tunisia, the only club to win all five CAF competitions, defeated AS Tanda 2-1 in the Ivory Coast having built a three-goal lead at home.
COSAFA will now watch the group stage draw (date yet to be confirmed) with a sense of pride.
The group stage matches will start on May 12 and run until July 9, with the quarter-finals then kicking off in September.
Ethiopian club Saint George have also found their way to the group stages for the first time since this competition was restructured in 1997 after a shock 3-0 aggregate win over AC Leopards of Congo-Brazzaville.
Also through to the group stages for the first time is Al Ahli Tripoli of Libya.
The other qualified teams are Coton Sport (Cameroon), USM Alger (Algeria), Al Ahly and Zamalek (both Egypt), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Al-Hilal and Al-Merrikh (both Sudan), Esperance de Tunis and Etoile du Sahel (both Tunisia) and AS Vita Club from DRC.
Meanwhile, the other 16 teams — which includes South African PSL title chasers Bidvest Wits — that lost in this Champions League round will drop down to the CAF Confederation Cup play-off round starting early next month.
Wits will now join Platinum Stars and SuperSport United in the continent’s second tier club cup competition, whose 16-team group stage will be determined by the play-off round which draws the 16 winners of the Confederations Cup first round ties against the 16 losers of the Champions League first round. — KickOff.com/AFP.