Not a foregone conclusion

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 16 May 2023

Egypt’s Ahly go into Friday’s second-leg semi-final clash in Cairo against Esperance of Tunisia in the African Champions League holding a comfortable 3-0 lead but their coach is tempering expectations, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Ahly beat Esperance 3-0 in the first leg game in Tunisia
Ahly beat Esperance 3-0 in the first leg game in Tunisia


There are no guarantees in sports but one thing’s for sure: Ahly are much closer than their opponents to reaching their fourth consecutive final in the African Champions League.

The Egyptian giants blanked Esperance of Tunisia 3-0 in Rades in a surprising away mismatch on Friday last week. The win should give Ahly in the return leg in Cairo on Friday 19 May a cushion big enough to absorb any major shocks. 

Percy Tau gave Ahly the lead after just eight minutes, before netting the second in the 55th minute. Mahmoud Kahraba sealed the deal with Ahly’s third in the 75th minute.

It was Ahly’s biggest margin of victory in Tunisia, yet not everyone is so sure of an outright aggregate Ahly win in Cairo. Esperance assistant manager Nader Dawoud still believes his side can reach the final. “The hope of Esperance going through to the final is still alive despite the difficulty of the task in Cairo,” Dawoud said.

Ahly’s first-year Swiss coach Marcel Koller did not want to count his chickens before they hatched.

“Qualification is not decided yet,” Koller said. “Qualification will be decided only after the next game final whistle. We will be fully concentrated as everything is possible in football.”

Koller cited a few examples of deep come-from-behind victories, noting Liverpool were four goals back against Barcelona in 2019 and Juventus scoring three away goals against Real Madrid in 2018, both in the European Champions League.

He may also have added arguably history’s most famous one-game turnaround: Liverpool cutting AC Milan’s 3-0 lead in 2005 in the Champions League final.

But while the examples are not exceptionally rare, Esperance do not appear to be a team that can make a stirring comeback. While the famed North African derby used to produce titanic clashes, Esperance certainly no longer have the calibre of players that gave them four Champions League titles. In Rades, scoring chances for Esperance were far and few between, their biggest opportunity a missed header by Algerian Mohamed Tougai from point-blank range in the first half.

Still, and ironically, Esperance may take heart in that Tau’s first goal should never have gone in. It should have easily been dealt with by their goalkeeper Mohamed Debchi who tried in vain to kick-save, hockey style, what was a rather timid shot.  

Esperance may also point to the lack of support they had in Rades Stadium which was virtually empty because the Tunisians are serving a fan ban following a soccer riot. Ahly, though, will have no such problems in Cairo Stadium where Esperance will surely face a rabid crowd of over 50,000 Ahly fans. 

Esperance’s misery has been compounded even more in the return leg: one of the early casualties from Esperance’s lopsided defeat on home soil was the sudden resignation of their head coach Nabil Maaloul. The departure of Maaloul, who was making his third stint with Esperance and helped them win the Tunisian league title last season, means the Tunisian club will play the return fixture without their permanent manager.

History is also on Ahly’s side. In 20 previous match-ups, Ahly chalked up 10 victories against Esperance’s four with six ending in a draw.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in Esperance’s way is Ahly’s determination to extend their record 10 titles after losing to Wydad Casablanca in last year’s final 2-0. Another Champions League crown would also send Ahly to yet another Club World Cup, eight so far, third place three times. 

Wydad, meanwhile, are in a mess of their own, being held to a goalless draw against South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns in the first leg of their semi-final, despite the match being held in Morocco and Sundowns ending the match with only nine players.

Sundowns were forced to play with 10 men from the 42nd minute after Neo Maema was sent off with a straight red card. They were reduced to nine men in extra time when substitute midfielder Marcelo Allende was given a second yellow card for a dangerous challenge.

The result leaves the tie finely poised ahead of the second leg in Pretoria on Saturday 20 May but on paper at least Sundowns will now head to the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria next weekend knowing any kind of victory will send them to their first final since they won the crown in 2016.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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