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Bertrand Traore - Call off the search

 By Mark Gleeson

Mamelodi Sundowns/AS Vita Club's recent history highlights CAF CL draw

The CAF Champions League's new format opens up the tournament to more clubs from less traditional footballing powers.

Idrissa Traore is a name already largely forgotten but the Malian midfielder will always have a position of some infamy in the history of the African Champions League

He will be remembered again in the coming months as holders Mamelodi Sundowns were paired on Wednesday with AS Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the draw for this year's new-look group phase.

Traore, nicknamed "Essien" in his native country, moved at the start of last year to Vita but both he and his new employers overlooked the fact he still had time to serve on a suspension handed him by the Confederation of African Football while at previous club Stade Malien.

So when Vita fielded him in the early rounds of the 2016 Champions League, they were playing a defaulter -- a fact only uncovered by the time they had already progressed through three rounds of matches.

They edged past Sundowns on the away goals rule in the last preliminary round to qualify for the group phase but were then disqualified. The South Africans took their place, looking imperious in the group competition and then using that momentum to go on and win the Champions League for the first time. But their victory has had to deal with gnawing questions over the legitimacy of their success that obviously irritates coach Pitso Mosimane whenever he has them posed to him.

Now Sundowns and Vita will meet again in the group phase of the Champions League. They were drawn together when CAF conducted the draw for the group phase of both the Champions League and African Confederation Cup in Cairo. Both competitions have been expanded to allow 16 teams into four groups, doubling the size of the group phase.

Sundowns and Vita will be joined by two-time winners Esperance, long the dominant force in Tunisia but looking for a first domestic title since 2014, and newcomers St George of Ethiopia -- an ambitious outfit who only last month opened a academy in Addis Ababa

Mamelodi Sundowns won last season's CAF Champions League but were fortunate to have been given a second life after AS Vita was disqualified.

The other seeded teams were eight-time winners Al Ahly of Egypt; compatriots Zamalek, who finished runners-up last year, and Etoile Sahel from Tunisia.

Etoile look to have the easiest assignment in their bid to get through to the quarterfinals after being drawn in Group A with two Sudanese clubs and newcomers Ferroviario Beira from Mozambique.The rivalry between Al-Hilal and Al-Merreikh is among the fiercest on the continent and the pair are perennial qualifiers for the group phase of African club competition but neither have ever won the continent's top club prize.

Ferroviario are one of the benefactors of the expanded size of the competition and now get to play on level they have never experienced before. This comes after they went into their first knockout round game with 10 players suffering from malaria. It is only recently that the stranglehold on the Mozambican league by clubs from the capital Maputo has been broken. Beira is the country's second city but up until recently a footballing backwater.

Al-Ahly will renew their battle with Wydad Casablanca of Morocco, who last year won their group in impressive fashion but then bombed out in the semifinals. Al Ahly finished third and were eliminated but beat Wydad away in Morocco and drew with them in Egypt.

The other clubs in Group D are Coton Sport of Cameroon, who were runners-up in 2008, and Zanaco, playing at this level for the first time. The Zambian club were formed in 1985 as a social club for the employees of the Zambia National Commercial Bank but have gone on to win seven Zambian Premier League titles.

Zamalek's major rival in Group B will be USM Alger, who preceded the Egyptians as runners-up in the competition. They lost in the 2015 final to TP Mazembe.

Libya's Alahly Tripoli are also in the group, having advanced to the group phase despite the league in their country being stopped by the political strife in the country and also intensive rivalry among warring football administrators. Alahly will also have to play their games on neutral territory, usually Cairo or Tunis.

Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.


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