Hand goal kicks Ahli out of Africa
A handball goal against Esperance prevented Egypt's Ahli from advancing to the African Champions League final, Ahmed Morsy reports
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Eneramo scores his hand goal; Ahli players protest vehemently to the referee after Barakat's dismissal (left)
On a miserable rainy night in Tunisia, the hopes of six-time African champions Ahli to make it seven ended after they lost 1-0 to Esperance on Sunday in a poorly and hotly contested second leg semi-final.
The first-leg ended 2-1 for Ahli a fortnight earlier in Cairo.
As a result, Esperance qualified for the final for the first time in a decade where they will face defending champions TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The lone goal, which was scored by Esperance's striker Mickael Eneramo, was enough to oust Ahli from the prestigious championship. The manner by which the goal was scored will be debated for a long time.
In the second minute of the ill-tempered match, the Nigerian forward dived in the air, extending his hand volleyball-style to score his side's sole goal. The Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey and his assistant did not spot the blatant handball.
From then on, the guests protested against many of Lamptey's decisions which broke their concentration and worse, led, in the 26th minute, to Ahli's mercurial midfielder Mohamed Barakat being sent off following an off-ball scuffle.
Most Egyptian sports critics criticised the referee's incessant whistles throughout the match which they said seemed always in favour of the Tunisian side. Others blamed the green laser beams directed from the stands at the face of Ahli goalkeeper Sherif Ekrami which could have hampered his ability to see.
Ironically, Eneramo's goal was similar to Ahli striker Mohamed Fadl's hadball effort in the first leg scored in Cairo Stadium two weeks earlier when the ball bounced into his hand before dribbling into the net of goalie Wassim Naouara.
Accordingly, if both goals are cancelled out, the first leg match would have ended 1-1 and the second leg goalless, meaning Esperance would have reached the final on the away goals rule.
It should also be noted that in Cairo, Naouara, too, was a victim of the laser beam antics.
It was assumed that despite the shaky refereeing and the usual provocative play of North African players, Ahli's veterans would have had enough experience to deal with the occasion. On Sunday, though, experience was only a motto.
Did Ahli merit reaching the final? Their entire African campaign suggests otherwise.
In round 32, Ahli lost away 1-0 to Gunners FC of Zimbabwe and won 2-0 in home. In round 16, Ahli was defeated away 2-0 to Alittihad of Libya before getting a hard-fought 3-0 win in Cairo.
In the group stage, they finished second behind Kabilye of Algeria before going down to Esperance. That's a record of five wins, five losses and two draws, with not a single away win. Not the stuff of champions.
In comparison, title holders TP Mazembe lost only two games from the 12 games they played. Esperance also lost just twice.
After Sunday's game, Esperance's assistant coach Maher Kanzari told Egyptian Radio that Eneramo's goal, though dubious, was fair.
"If we cancelled today's goal and Ahli's in Cairo, Esperance would still reach the final," Kanzari added.
"We deserved to go through. Our performance in the first leg was the worst ever and didn't show our real capabilities."
"Barakat's dismissal was a major reason why we qualified for the final. Barakat is an influential figure and when he was sent off our mission became a lot easier."
In the game, Ahli's Mohamed Nagi 'Gedo' was fielded as a lone striker because of injuries to Francis Doe and Mohamed Talaat while Fadl was introduced in the second half to join Gedo.
"I was astonished to see our opponents deploy four defenders and six midfielders. It was a defensive strategy with no strikers," Kanzari stated.
Esperance coach Faouzi Benzarti told FIFA.com that his side's progress to the final was validation of his young players' ability.
"We prepared a tactic of pressuring our opponent in front of their goal, and we got an early strike," he said.
"We had chances to score a second goal, but unfortunately they did not come. However, we prevented Ahli from playing their game and, for that, I congratulate my young players on their efforts."
Ahli coach Hossam El-Badri accused the Ghanaian referee of being consciously unfair.
"The result of the game was fixed before the kick-off. I feel bad because we have to play football in Africa where referees do whatever they want," El-Badri ranted to Egyptian Radio.
"Certainly I'm not pleased with the refereeing, and with all due respect Esperance do not deserve to qualify for the final of the championship.
"We didn't put in a good performance but neither did they."
Ahli have filed a complaint to CAF against the Ghanaian referee. "Lamptey was evidently biased and his fatal mistakes illegitimately gave Esperance a place in the African Champions League final," a statement on Ahli's official site reads.
Historically, complaints do not change results.