File photo of Ahly's clash against Esperance in the first leg of the African Champions League final in 2018 (AFP)
Ahly's African Champions League clash away to Esperance on Saturday brings back bitter memories for the Red Devils but they will have a chance for revenge in the semi-final first leg in Rades.
Esperance inflicted a painful 3-0 defeat on Ahly the last time both sides met at the Hammadi Agrebi venue in 2018 to win the coveted Champions League trophy with a 4-3 aggregate victory.
Ahly exited the following edition with another humiliating 5-1 aggregate loss to South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns but made amends last year, winning an elusive title with a remarkable 2-1 victory over perennial Cairo rivals Zamalek.
This year, the reigning champions eliminated Sundowns in the quarters 3-1 on aggregate but they still need to claim the scalp of another traditional rival as they eye a record-extending 10th Champions League crown.
"Al Ahly against Esperance is a classic Champions League game and we all know the importance of the game, given the history and the ambitions of both clubs and their constant desire to win titles," Ahly's South African coach Pitso Mosimane told the pre-match news conference.
"We are an experienced team and we always play to win and make our fans happy. We have a huge responsibility towards our history and our fans. We are soldiers and we are defending Al Ahly badge."
Fans are back
Four-time winners Esperance have been impressive this season. They topped their Champions League group with 11 points before defeating Algeria's CR Belouizdad in a shootout following a thrilling 2-2 aggregate draw in the quarters.
They also won the domestic league for a fifth straight season and will enjoy the backing of 5,000 fans when they host Ahly after African governing body CAF approved a decision by Tunisian authorities to allow a limited number of supporters in the stands.
"We want to win the semi-finals and reach the final. Our focus tomorrow is on not conceding goals and trying to score to have an advantage ahead of the second leg," Mosimane added.
"Conceding goals away from home is not the end. Esperance conceded two goals away from home in the quarter-finals but they bounced back in the second leg in Tunisia to win the tie."
Ahly underlined the importance of "having a fully functional Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in Saturday's decisive encounter", making an implicit reference to the controversy that surrounded the 2019 final.
Two years ago, Esperance's clash against Wydad in Rades was called off after the Moroccan side refused to play as VAR malfunctioned, with the referee unable to check a replay of a legitimate goal by the visitors, which was wrongfully disallowed for offside. Esperance were eventually awarded a win.
Ahly have doubts over the fitness of key playmaker Magdi Afsha, who picked up an ankle injury in the team's 2-0 victory over Morocco's RS Berkane in the African Super Cup last month.
The team could also make do without their two right-backs, with Mohamed Hani ruled out due to injury and his understudy, Ahmed Ramadan, suffering a knock ahead of the match.
"We have many players who can replace Afsha but I hope to have him fit for tomorrow's game. He will have a medical check-up tomorrow to decide if he is available for the game or not," Mosimane said.
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