Al Ahly overcame Sunshine Stars of Nigeria to book their place in the final of the African Champions League, the Cairene side will face Espérance of Tunisia in what promises to be an epic matchup.
Ahly are no strangers to the top end of continental competition. The African Club of the Century are six-time Champions League winners, and have an unrivalled record of success at the highest peak of African football. The domestic league had become somewhat of a procession for Ahly before the domestic violence in Egypt halted competition – 2004 was the last time they failed to end the year as national champions. Competition against Africa’s finest has, however, proved more of a challenge in recent years – not since 2008 have the continent’s most successful club conquered the Champions League.
All may change this year, and after Gedo’s early goal against the Sunshine Stars, Ahly’s march to the final seemed to be shrouded in a cloak of inevitability. The first leg in Nigeria two weeks ago ended 3-3 – the Agagu Boys impressing in front of their home fans to push Ahly right to the edge. The Nigerians seemed to lack the same drive and intensity during the return at the Cairo Stadium; with the match played behind closed doors, the eerie silence of the atmosphere seemed to favour the Ahly players, who overcame their Nigerian challenge with a steely professionalism and a clinical composure. Perhaps it was the partisan home crowd in the first leg, and the emotional buoyancy of the occasion, which had propelled the Sunshine Stars to put three past Ahly, but the trick was not to be repeated in Cairo – as the Egyptians controlled the match from start to finish.
Gedo was one of the heroes from the first leg – a thrilling tie. He bagged twice, and looked to have sealed the points for the Red Devils, before a late, late equaliser from Osasco Precious secured a third for Sunshine Stars. Once more the Ahly striker made the key impact, his early goal in Cairo eventually proving to be the difference between the two. The frontman could have pushed Ahly even further ahead, but he was denied numerous times by the woodwork – Gedo is one of Africa’s finest strikers, and accomplished performances in matches as high profile as this will go a long way to securing his legacy.
The Stars will perhaps be disappointed to have exited the tournament without managing to trouble Ahly more in Egypt – Harrison Egbune went close with a terrific attempt late on, but ultimately the Agagu Boyswere impotent in Cairo. Still, for a maiden campaign in the tournament, the Sunshine Stars have impressed, and they will hope to return to the competition in the near future.
In the other semi-final, Espérance of Tunisia took on four-time champions TP Mazembe of Lubumbashi, Congo. After a 0-0 tie in the first leg, the score was settled by a solitary goal – the finish coming from a cute touch by left back Mohamed Ben Mansour. The sole-but, coming in the 70thminute, was enough to see off the brave Corbeaux of Mazembe, and, shorn of their spine of Zambian stars – Rainford Kalaba and Stoppila Sunzu – the Congolese were unable to mount a response.
Espérance v. Ahly can be considered a dream matchup of sorts for observers of the African game. The two are hugely decorated, local rivals, and both topped their group in the early rounds of the competition. Whilst Ahly are the more celebrated of the pair, with six continental titles to Espérance’s two, it has been the Tunisians who have been responsible, partly at least, for eliminating their Egyptian neighbours in both 2010 and 2011.
Victory in the final over two legs in November could be invaluable to Egyptian football. Rarely has a federation and a national sport found themselves as under-siege or as criticised as the Egyptian FA in recent times, and rarely has the football of a nation been so intertwined, so tragically, with its political unravelling. Victory for Ahly, and Egyptian dominance on the continental stage once more, could be the perfect fillip for a club that has meant so much to so many, during such a difficult moment in a nation’s history.