By Eddie Chikamhi and Mukudzei Chingwere
Zimbabwe football kings FC Platinum were yesterday handed a relatively tough draw which will include a Southern Africa Derby against Orlando Pirates and a date against reigning African champions Esperance of Tunisia in Group B of the CAF Champions League mini-league.
The platinum miners, who made it to the lucrative group stage for the first time after three attempts, will also play perennial campaigners Horoya SC of Guinea.
The opening round matches will kick off on January 11 and by March 15 all the home and away matches should be complete.
According to the draw conducted in Cairo last night, FC Platinum will start at home when they host the South Africans at Mandava.
Pirates are returning to Zimbabwe for the first time in the competition since 1997 when they knocked out Harare giants CAPS United with a 3-1 aggregate win. Then the Buccaneers had a strong team featuring former Bafana Bafana Stars like Jerry “Legs of Thunder” Sikhosana, Helman Mkhalele, Brandon Silent and Mark Fish.
They beat Makepekepe 2-1 at the National Sports Stadium and then finished off the job with a 1-0 victory in the reverse fixture in Johannesburg, hoping to repeat the feat of 1995 when they won their sole CAF Champions League title. Their success over Makepekepe bought them a ticket into the group stages where they were drawn to face Raja Casablanca of Morocco, Primeiro Agosto of Angola and USM Alger of Algeria. However, they finished the adventure winless.
Pirates of late have been a pale shadow of themselves on the continent despite doing well in their league. The Buccaneers are home to Warriors internationals such as Marshall Munetsi and Kudakwashe Mahachi and playing down south will not come as a major culture shock to the Zimbabwean champions.
This was the first time that Pirates are playing continental football since the 2015 season when they competed in the Confederations Cup final. Before then they also were involved in the Champions League final in 2013.
On the other hand, the 2018-2019 edition should be an exciting adventure for FC Platinum who have failed in their previous two attempts in 2012 and 2018 to reach the group stage.
The major hurdle however should come from three-time African champions Esperance who remain the favourites to top this group.
The Tunisians showed great resilience to win this year’s edition of the competition at the expense of battle hardened Egyptian football warlords, Al Ahly, by overturning a first leg deficit to claim Africa’s premier club competition. Horoya AC of Guinea completes the group. The West Africans, who finished in the quarterfinals in the just ended 2018 edition, do not look cheap opponents.
They have vast experience with African tournaments since 1978 when they won the Africa Cup Winners Cup, now the CAF Confederation Cup. They also have vast experience with the Champions League although they have not quite made their mark.
They will definitely not be pushovers after progressing to the knock-out phase at the expenses of South African Premiership side Mamelodi Sundowns last time-out.
However, former Young Warriors coach Rodwell Dhlakama, who took Monomotapa to the group stages of the Champions’ League in 2009, has tipped FC Platinum to do well in this group. “I think this is fair draw for them. They could not have expected anything better than what they have got, there are no easy games at this level. “I am not saying they are simple opponents because we are talking of defending champions here (Esperance), but at this level of the game you can expect anything.
“Esperance will be a very difficult opponent but Orlando Pirates is better for Zimbabwean teams because we know how they play. If the coaches do their homework then they have a chance.
“Horoya AC are a good team, they did very well in the previous competition and although they are not new to this competition, FC Platinum should also fancy their chances. “You do not want a situation where you face two opponents from North Africa in the same group or all teams not from this region, so I can say they have a chance,” said Dhlakama. FC Platinum will be boosted by the continuity in their squad. Since the arrival of Norman Mapeza in 2014, only a few stars have left for greener pastures but the core of the team remains.
Under the guidance of the former Warriors coach, they have played in the Confederations Cup and are participating for the second time in this competition.
FULL CAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW
Lobi Stars (Nigeria), Wydad Athletic Club (Morocco), ASEC Mimosa (Cote D Ivoire), Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa).
FC Platinum (Zimbabwe), Horoya AC (Guinea), Esperance (Tunisia), Orlando Pirates (South Africa).
TP Mazembe (DR Congo), Club Africain (Tunisia), CS Constantinois (Algeria), Ismaily (Egypt).
Al Ahly SC (Egypt), Simba SC (Tanzania), JS Saoura (Algeria), AS Vita Club (DR Congo). The Herald.