|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The final moveAhli and Sundowns will meet in the final of the African Champions League after overturning their opponents in away games. Abeer Anwar reports on the heroics far from home
A stroke of genius from substitute Said Abdel-Hafiz in Tunis squeezed Ahli into the African Champions League final this weekend. Abdel-Hafiz cancelled an early Adailton Perreira strike for Tunisian outfit Esperance with a timely 77th-minute goal and a 1-1 draw took the Cairo Red Devils through on away goals after a scoreless first leg.
The Egyptian side will now face South African club Sundowns who were taken to a penalty shootout by Angolan hosts Petro Atletico on Sunday before clinching a place in the final.
A record $1 million first prize will be at stake when the clubs clash at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria over the weekend of 7-9 December and at Cairo Stadium two weeks later.
It is Sundowns' first appearance in the showpiece of the major Pan-African club championship, which Ahli won in 1982 and 1987 and were runners-up to Asante Kotoko of Ghana in 1983.
While the outcome in Tunis was a shock as home advantage was expected to tell in favour of 1999 and 2000 runners-up Esperance, Ahli had more possession during the two-match North African showdown.
The Egyptians also had little luck, hitting the woodwork twice in the first leg and having several seemingly certain goals denied by the brilliance of Tunisian goalkeeper Mohamed Zouabi in the same match.
Ironically, Zouabi did not have a serious save to make throughout the second leg played in a highly-charged atmosphere before a capacity 45,000 crowd at the Al- Menzah Stadium. But when he strayed off his line as the match drifted into the closing stages, Abdel-Hafiz pounced on a timid headed clearance and lobbed the ball into the net with sublime skill.
Panic-stricken Esperance responded with an attacking frenzy and Perreira struck a shot so hard that outstanding Ahli goalkeeper Essam El-Hadari needed two attempts before clutching the ball.
Another Esperance effort flew over and an injury-time free kick from Brazilian Reinaldo Aliluia was pushed away brilliantly for a corner by El-Hadari.
"I am very confident that Ahli will win the final," Ahli's Portuguese coach Manuel Jose said. "The players did their best and I pushed Abdel-Hafiz in the end because he was not fit to start ."
The victory gave Ahli a chance of winning one of the three major African club tournaments after Zamalek and Ismaili bowed out of the Cup Winners Cup earlier this year.
Leading 2-0 from the first leg in Pretoria two weeks ago, Sundowns lost by the same score at the Citadela Stadium only to emerge 5-3 winners on penalties and book a December showdown with Ahli.
Boastful Romania-born coach Ted Dumitru said before the second leg in the sun-drenched Angolan capital that Sundowns' defenders and midfielders were the best organised on the continent.
"Petro have a slow, clumsy defence that will have to open up as they push forward in search of goals. This will leave gaps for my speedy strikers," the coach added without a hint of modesty.
But the match did not go according to plan for the South Africans, who were pipped on goal difference by Esperance for a place in the Champions League final last year.
The gaps they envisaged in the absence of suspended Petro defensive anchor Carlos 'Didi' Viegas did not materialise and two goals by Democratic Republic of Congo midfielder Kapela Mbiyavanga placed Petro in the driving seat.
An anonymous figure in the first leg, Mbiyavanga raised his goal tally to eight this year in the Champions League by striking after 25 and 48 minutes, but the third goal which would have taken them through eluded Petro.
When former Angolan international Fernando 'Zico' Francisco failed to convert the first kick of the shootout, Sundowns gained a psychological advantage and they converted their five kicks, much to the relief of Dumitru.
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