Substitute El-Sayed Hamdi struck with three minutes remaining as Ahly salvaged a 1-1 draw at home to title holders Esperance to keep alive their hopes of winning the African Champions League title.
Esperance seemed on a course for a famous win in Sunday’s final first-leg in Alexandria when Walid Hichri capitalized on a blunder from Ahly keeper Sherif Ekramy to score against the run of play four minutes after the restart.
The visitors had to thank impressive goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia for pulling off a string of saves to thwart Ahly, who suffered from a lack of cutting edge, on several occasions.
However, he was powerless to stop Ahly from claiming a late equalizer when Hamdi, who was introduced in the second half, rifled home an unstoppable shot from inside the area to spark wild celebrations in the stands.
Esperance will still be content with a draw that would make them favourites to retain their title when they host Ahly in the second leg on 17 November.
Ahly will be looking to replicate their remarkable victory over Tunisia’s Sfaxien in 2006 when the first leg ended in a 1-1 draw in Cairo before Mohamed Abou-Treika scored a last-gasp goal in the return to hand his side a 2-1 aggregate win.
Ahly played before around 20,000 fans for the first time since February’s Port Said disaster, which prompted Egyptian authorities to impose a crowd ban due to lingering security concerns.
Ahly’s hardcore supporters (Ultras Ahlawy) did not attend the match as they await a court verdict over the notorious Port Said case but they still managed to enter the Borg El-Arab stadium before kick-off to display their usual ‘tifo’, a term used to describe a fan spectacle before a match or after a goal is scored.
The many placards they left in the stands bore the sentence “74 martyrs in paradise” in reference to the Ahly fans who were killed after an ugly pitch invasion by Masry supporters following an end of an Egyptian Premier League on 1 February.
The Red Devils, who last won Africa’s premier club competition in 2008, totally dominated the first half as Esperance deployed a cautious strategy to contain a wave of Ahly attacks.
Ben Cherifia was Esperance’s best performer, palming several long-range shots from Ahly forwards and making some timely interceptions that prevented the hosts from creating potential goal-scoring opportunities.
Veteran playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika, playing his first game after ending a two-month suspension imposed on him by the club for skipping September’s Super Cup game against ENPPI, squandered Ahly’s best chance before the break.
Right-back Ahmed Fathi ran down the right flank after 33 minutes and pulled the ball back from the byline to the unmarked Abou-Treika, who fired high over the bar.
Esperance take Ahly by surprise
Esperance made the most of Ahly’s poor defending in set pieces to notch up a surprising goal on 49 minutes and silence the home crowd.
Hichri sneaked in to rise unopposed and cut ahead of the motionless Ekramy, heading home a corner from the right and leaving Ahly with a mountain to climb.
Ahly pushed forward in a bid to equalise but were restricted to some tame shots for long periods, with their trademark attacking manoeuvres nowhere to be seen.
Even when they had the chance to penetrate a resolute defence, their wastefulness let them down. Abou-Treika squandered another gilt-edged opportunity in the 73rd minute when his close-range effort from a low Walid Soliman cross was blocked by Ben Cherifia.
Hamdi finally made their pressure count three minutes from time when Fathi slipped a defence-splitting ball into his path to send a powerful drive that left the otherwise outstanding Ben Cherifia with no chance.
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