In what could be its penultimate voyage this year, Ahly’s cruise ship is sailing towards a record-extending eighth African Champions League triumph but it will have to survive a Pirates attack if it is to keep the prestigious trophy in Cairo.
South Africa’s Orlando Pirates, a vivid team who usually catch opposition off guard, are eager to hijack the trophy they won just once in 1995 as they make their second appearance in Africa’s premier club competition.
Egyptian giants Ahly are aware what it means to come face to face with the hungry Pirates, having suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat in the Red Sea resort of El-Gouna for their heaviest-ever home loss in the Champions League group stage.
In that game, the Pirates exposed Ahly’s defensive frailties, toying with the Cairo outfit to record a stunning win. But the Red Devils ensured that defeat was a mere off-day rather than a significant dip in form, going on to top their group with 11 points, three ahead of the South Africans.
Ahly wrapped up their group-stage run with a goalless draw against the Pirates in Johannesburg in the same venue that will host Saturday’s final first-leg.
“We know well that Orlando Pirates are a strong team, and their progress at the expense of [Tunisian outfit] Esperance proves that,” said Ahly coach Mohamed Youssef.
“But our pedigree and history speak volumes about our capabilities. We will not accept anything less than retaining the Champions League title,” added the rookie tactician, who is credited with keeping the team better than par with relatively more stable opponents against the backdrop of the ongoing domestic football stoppage in Egypt.
Ahly qualified for the final by the skin of their teeth despite appearing in a comfortable position after holding Cameroon’s Coton Sport to a 1-1 first-leg draw in Garoua.
Their Egyptian international players seemed dearly affected by the Pharaohs’ humiliating 6-1 World Cup playoff defeat by Ghana when they hosted Coton Sport in Gouna, needing a penalty shootout to win 7-6 following a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Ahly’s North African rivals Esperance failed to set up a rematch of last year’s final after they lost to the Pirates on the away goal rule following a 1-1 aggregate draw.
South Africa hoodoo
Ahly have never won a Champions League game on South African soil, drawing three times and losing twice in five games.
The three stalemates included a valuable one when Ahly held Mamelodi Sundowns to a 1-1 draw in Pretoria in the 2001 final before crushing them 3-0 in Cairo to win the competition and end a 14-year drought.
“I still believe they [Ahly] are favourites,” Pirates coach Roger De Sa told South African website Super Sport.
“Because of the experience they've got and the pedigree they've got as well, and also playing at home in the second game, I think that probably gives them the edge as well.
“I believe keeping a clean-sheet is important. When you're at home, it's important not to concede. But if you do, you have to get on with it and score even more goals. It's important that we keep it tight. If we can go to Egypt with something in the bag, then we have a chance.”
Youssef will have a fully-fit squad at his disposal after Egyptian international keeper Sherif Ekrami shrugged off an injury. Striker Emad Meteb could also make his long-awaited appearance after a lengthy absence due to a niggling back complaint.
Should Ahly overcome the Pirates in the two-legged final, their cruise ship will be destined for a journey to Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
Ahly took part in four out of the nine Club World Cups played so far, finishing third in the 2006 edition.
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