JOHANNESBURG, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Five times winners Zamalek will lead the challenge to end domestic rivals Al Ahli's dominance in the African Champions League when the competition begins this weekend.
Egypt's Zamalek had to watch from the sidelines last year as Al Ahli equalled their record for the most titles in Africa's top club competition.
While still being forced to play second fiddle to Ahli in national competition, Zamalek return to the Champions League seemingly having turned a corner with the appointment in December of Frenchman Henri Michel as their coach.
Michel is no stranger to African competition, having taken the Ivory Coast to the final of last year's African Nations Cup and winning the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Cup with Raja Casablanca of Morocco in 2003.
Zamalek's opening tie is at home to Vital'O of Burundi in Cairo on Sunday. Al Ahli have a bye into the second round in March.
Perennial Tunisian challengers Esperance, who did not qualify for the Champions League last year, also return with lofty aspirations.
Esperance have twice been runners-up and made three more semi-final appearances since the league format was introduced in 1997. Their only success was in the old Champions Cup in 1994.
The Tunis-based side host Renaissance from Chad on Friday and the visitors could be in line for something of a backlash after Esperance lost their unbeaten home record to derby rivals Club Africain last weekend.
Other former winners such as JS Kabylie of Algeria, Morocco's Wydad Casablanca and TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo also appear to have relatively easy assignments.
JS Kabylie host OS Balantas from Guinea Bissau while Wydad play on Sunday at home to ASC Mauritel from Mauriania.
Mazembe are forced to host Botswana's Police XI in Kinshasa because of a CAF ban on their stadium in Lububmashi.
Esportivo Maputo of Mozambique and Ethiopia's St George have received walkovers into the next round after the belated withdrawal of their respective opponents St Pierroise and Escom United.
The return legs will be played on the weekend of Feb. 9 to 11.