Defending champions Ahly of Egypt remain on course to retain their Total Energies CAF Champions League title after beating Esperance of Tunisia by a solitary goal in the first leg of their semi-final duel played in Tunis on Saturday.
Mohamed Sherif scored the lone goal for the Red Devils in the 66th minute in Hammadi Agrebi Stadium to hand them a vital win away from home and set up a slight advantage heading into Saturday’s return leg in Cairo.
In a tightly contested encounter, chances were limited especially in the opening half when the two teams sized each other up in tactical battles.
Ahly thought they had the lead after half an hour when Sherif tapped the ball home after the keeper spilled a shot from Hamdi Fathi, but his goal was ruled out for offside.
Four minutes later, the home side had a good chance when Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane danced past his marker inside the box, but Ahly keeper Mohamed Al-Shennawi palmed the ball away from his feet.
Ahly should have been ahead eight minutes after the restart, but Mohamed Taher could not knock the ball into the net unmarked at the backpost when a cross was swung in from the right.
But Sherif latched onto a through ball from Aliou Dieng and scored on the second attempt after his initial shot came back off the post.
Ahly Head Coach Pitso Mosimane of South Africa reflected on the team’s victory. “Our players were able to deal well with the game. They gave everything they had and therefore we were able to achieve a positive result.
“However, I made sure to tell the players that we have still not qualified yet to the final. Ahly and Esperance have a long history of games which prove that winning the first leg doesn’t mean that you’ll qualify to the final.
“We still have a game to play in Cairo and that is what captain Mahmoud Al-Khatib, Ahly’s president, said to the players after the game. Moreover, we respect Esperance and their head coach, as they are a big team in Africa.
“[Ahly midfielder] Afsha was not fully fit, as he was injured against RS Berkane in the CAF Super League. He joined the game when Esperance started to pressure us and we needed to change our playing strategy.”
Mosimane also noted the clash which erupted between Esperance fans and the Tunisian police before the start of the game. Police beat back the supporters with tear gas, delaying the match for one hour.
“We understand these things, and they do happen, but Ahly and Esperance have the experience needed to deal with these situations. We had an obligation towards our players as we have to keep them calm because they are the ones who will play.”
Al-Khatib congratulated Ahly players after the win. He praised their performance and fighting spirit and stressed they had to keep it up in the second leg in order to secure qualification to the final.
Should Ahly reach the final, they will meet either Wydad of Morocco or Kaiser Chiefs of South Africa. Kaiser Chiefs upset Wydad 1-0 in the first leg semi-final in Morocco.
Meanwhile, Pyramids, also of Egypt, and Raja Casablanca played to a scoreless draw in Cairo in the first leg semi-final of the second tier continental football club competition, the African Confederation Cup.
Striker Soufiane Rahimi had the game’s best chances in the opening half. In the 10th minute, he took a shot from range after being accorded space, but the Pyramids keeper Ahmed Al-Shennawi managed to parry the ball away at full stretch.
In the 23rd minute, the striker had an even better chance to score when he was put through on goal by Mahmoud Benhalib, but his close range shot was well saved by Al-Shennawi, no relation to the Ahly stopper.
Seven minutes to the break, Pyramids had their first real go at goal when a cross from Hamdi Sharaf picked out Ibrajim Adel inside the box, but the latter’s shot was blocked.
In the second half it was same script, same cast.
“The game was almost equal,” Pyramids Head Coach Argentinian Rodolfo Arruabarrena, said. “We drew in the performance and the chances we had, but unfortunately those opportunities didn’t serve us. It was a tight game where each team was looking for any mistake from the other side so they can make use of and score, which is why it ended in a scoreless draw.
“We have played the first 90 minutes and there are still 90 more minutes to be played. The qualification to the final depends on the second leg which will take place in Morocco.”
“We played a good game and could have scored,” Raja’s Head Coach Lassad Chabob said. “We had three opportunities to score by Rahimi, but were missed. Pyramids had one serious chance in the second half.
“The scoreless draw is a good result for us. We still have a chance in the return game. Any team can score in the second leg and win; chances are levelled. We will forget about this game and focus on the second game in order to qualify.”
It was the first time in this year’s tournament that Raja failed to score in a game.
The second leg will take place in Casablanca on Sunday.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly