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CAF Champions League Final: First Blood to Esperance
Esperance secure a slight advantage over Al Ahly in a tense 1-1 draw in the African Champions League final first leg in Alexandria.
Sunday night saw the first leg of the African Champions League final between Esperance and Al Ahly played out in Alexandria. The Borg El-Arab played host to a compelling, if nervy encounter, which has put the Tunisians in pole position ahead of the return on the 17th November.
As Gedo’s goal back in October knocked the Sunshine Stars of Nigeria out and sealed Ahly’s place in the final, many were already forecasting this tie to be a ‘dream match’ of sorts. It’s easy to see why so much excitement surrounded the meeting of this heavyweight duo, the two are among the continent’s finest sides, and while Ahly are the more successful of the two – being heralded as Africa’s Club of the Century – Esperance have the more recent success, having been responsible, indirectly at least, for eliminating the Red Devils from the two previous competitions.
Esperance, the current holders, earned their place in the final after besting Congolese side TP Mazembe over two legs in the semi; the tie had been settled by one single, solitary goal, and the final against Ahly promised a similarly tense battle between two teams with very little between them.
A one-one draw away in Egypt is an impressive result for Mkachkha, although on the final whistle, many Tunisians will have contemplated whether they should have been returning to Tunis celebrating a victory rather than a draw. Leading until the 89th minute, it took a late, late equaliser from El-Sayed Hamdy, firing low from the edge of the box, to split the points.
Esperance had taken the lead though Walid Hicheri soon after half time, a rare foray forward resulted in a corner, and the Blood and Gold were quick to capitalize the defender rising highest to head the ball past Sherif Ekramy. A regular pattern had emerged before the opener, and continued until the match’s end: Ahly had been, by far, the more proactive of the teams, and the visitors had keeper Moaz Ben Cherifia to thank for keeping a multitude of Egyptian attackers at bay. That man Gedo was a regular menace, whilst Mohamed Abou-Treika will probably still be wondering how his effort from several yards was kept out by the heroic Tunisian international keeper.
The match was only the second occasion that a viewing public had been granted entry to a football arena since the Port Said Stadium Disaster on the 1st of February. 20, 000 were in attendance at the stadium in Alexandria, and while the Ahly Ultras had threatened to boycott the match, the mood within the Borg El-Arab was sombre, with minds very much on the tragedy at Al Masry, and black shirts worn as a show of solidarity and a mark of memory to those who lost their lives. A minute’s silence was observed before kick off, and pictures of the victims, numbering over 79, adorned the stadium.
There will be mixed emotions in the fortnight leading up to the return match in Tunisia. Ahly will be relieved that the equaliser was found in the end, but will be grieved that their overall dominance wasn’t rewarded with the home win that they will surely feel they deserve. Such profligacy in Tunis will be punished by a buoyed Esperance.
And buoyed they shall be. With the amount that Ahly threw at them, Esperance should, in truth, have been left behind by their Egyptian counterparts. But the gallant Cherifia was clearly in no mood to finish runner up, and his side will be renewed and galvanised by his display, earning them a valuable draw. Hicheri’s away goal may well prove crucial if the teams are once again deadlocked in Tunis, although don’t rule out an Ahly team keen to restore some pride to their nation.