Africa’s undisputed kings Ahly are likely to keep their Champions League crown after coming through a host of bumps unscathed, defying the odds once again to march on towards a possible second successive title.
Their journey should come to a successful conclusion when they host South Africa’s Orlando Pirates at the Arab Contractors Stadium in Cairo on Sunday, having scored what could be a vital away goal in a 1-1 first-leg draw in Soweto.
The Red Devils are expected to be roared on by the passionate crowd they have been missing in most of their Champions League matches, which they were forced to hold more than 400 km away from Cairo due to security concerns in the capital.
Sunday’s clash will be the first to take place in Cairo since the February 2012 Port Said disaster left over 70 Ahly fans dead following crowd riot in the Suez Canal city.
A tiny stadium in the Red Sea resort of El-Gouna hosted Ahly’s Champions League games this term, witnessing a stunning 3-0 group-stage defeat the team had suffered at the hands of the Pirates while their players were fasting during Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan.
But the Cairo giants, who will extend their record to eight titles in Africa’s elite club competition if they overcome the Pirates, made sure that defeat was a mere fluke after putting in a series of solid displays that took them to within touching distance of what seems now more of a customary triumph.
Four Champions League triumphs in the last eight years leave Ahly playing in a league of their own.
Those wins included an unlikely one when Ahly made light of lack of domestic action and political turmoil to beat Tunisia’s Esperance in last year’s final.
Things look pretty similar this year.
The Premier League was cancelled again, Egyptian authorities enforced a crowd ban and civil unrest ensued after the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi 3 July after mass protests against his rule.
“We have to be cautious, an away draw is not that assuring,” Ahly’s rookie coach Mohamed Youssef said, calling on his players to avoid complacency and bear in mind that they were held 1-1 by Esperance in last year’s final first-leg before going on to claim an away victory and wrap up the title with a 3-2 aggregate win.
“The first-leg draw is tricky. We will deal with the second leg without taking into consideration the away result, especially that we are facing a stubborn side who will be eager to win.”
The Pirates, a clever team on the break, struggled to create goal-scoring opportunities when they had the better possession against a defensive-minded Ahly, who restricted the hosts to some tame efforts throughout the game.
However, they still managed to avoid a first home defeat in the competition when a low shot from Thabo Matlaba gave them a stoppage-time equalizer after talismanic playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika had given Ahly the lead with a brilliant free kick in the first half.
“In the end it will be eleven Pirates players versus eleven Ahly players,” Pirates coach Roger de Sa said on the club’s official website, refusing to throw in the towel.
Youssef will have a fully-fit Ahly squad to choose from while de Sa will have to do without two regular players in Andile Jali and Happy Jele.
“Obviously I would have preferred to have Jali and Jele for this away trip but if you look at our path to the final, we have played matches minus a couple of our key players and we were still able to get the results,” De Sa added
“Jali for instance was out for a couple of matches in this tournament but we did well in his absence. We have a great squad of players, with a number of capable replacements who I believe can do the job for us over the weekend.”
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