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CAF Champions League

How King of Comebacks Esperance Mesmerized Al Ahly to Emerge African Champions

Esperances’ comeback stuns Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League Finals.

Feeling hearts down by and heads bowed, the ES Tunis delegation departed the Borg El Arab Stadium like politicians whose party had lost a catastrophic by-election.

The inclusion of arbiter Medi Abid Charef to oversee proceedings made it an all North African meeting point but the world of football would be stunned later when the Algerian gave out three dubious-looking spot-kicks in the five-goal-thriller Champions League final first-leg.

Angola sports fans were by this time giggling in suppressed amusement at seeing Esperance du Tunis crying foul, the same side they felt were aided by the referee to ditch their very own domestic league champions 1st de Agosto in the semi-finals of the Champions League last month.

Striker Walid Azaro’s unwise shirt-ripping incident to lure the referee into having one of the visitors’ players sent off had Esperance resigned to assuming they were victims of a brutal conspiracy.

The Al Ahly fans, more so the ultras, wore their usual best hostility to add to an already intimidating stadium.

However, in spite of the drama, there was still that burning desire to conquer that Al Ahly’s fine display in the first-leg failed to extinguish in the eyes of their Tunisian neighbors.

It was, as we would later find out, this dare-to-believe instinct that would propel the Red and Gold to upset the odds, leaving the rest of the footballing world awed and Al Ahly mouth-gaped in moments when even their staunchest of supporters had doubted them.

It’s a well-shared adage that in football, nothing is impossible. There certainly was an intuition that this would be an exception going into the build-up of Friday night’s nail-biting episode. But ES Tunis made it look easy ending up as 3-0 winners. From get-set-go, the game’s tempo was electric in the second-leg at the Stade Olympique Rades.

Frustrating the hosts by holding out for a draw or scoring early would have done it for the Egyptian champions. For some reasons, the visitors awfully failed in this regard as ES settled in early with their persistent pressing tactic, an indication that this was a do or die.

There was never going to be success for the 28-time Tunisia league winners without Ivorian Fousseny Coulibaly. The midfielder, as he is wont to in virtually every match, completed 96% of his passes. Only teammate defender Mohamed Al Yacoubi comes close with Al Ahly’s maestro Amr Al Sulaya at 91% and 90% respectively.

The hosts enjoyed 60% of the possession, recovering 102 balls against the visitors’ 100, who also committed the most fouls – a combined 25.

Intriguingly, the Red Devils of Cairo secured just a single corner-kick, had 297 passes compared to gaffer Chabaani charges’ 451 pass completions.

ES 4-2-3-1 formation rendered the opposition with zero chances and who had just a single shot on target in the total 96 minutes played.

Understandably, 29-year-old goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy was the busiest on the night, stopping thirteen shots on target unlike opposing number Moez Ben Cherifia who was the least disturbed with defender Mohamed Ali Yacoubi often the man intercepting and making the passes at the back-four.

Unlikely Scorer                                                               

Esperance refusal to cash in on any of their key players in preparation for an audacious Champions League outing has paid off at last. Chairman Hamdi Meddeb will get the adulations for that.

Match-winner Saad Bguir last scored in the competition in July against Uganda’s KCCA and in the domestic league in March against CS Sfaxien before his exploits last Friday. The 24-year-old would have warranted sacking in any ambitious club but Esperance’s patience in him was rewarded as he delivered the goodies, securing the side the US$2.5 million tournament staked prize.

First, he was well positioned between the two Ahly defenders in the box to let fly a left-footed shot that dived under hapless goalkeeper Mohamed’s armpit to the back of the net. ES had tossed the ball around making nine passes in the run-up to the goal with no opposing player getting even a slight touch of the ball.

The second goal was perhaps made in Stamdford Bridge – a class act of some sort. Interchanging of pass was, this time, cut down to five as the Cairo-based outfit chased shadows. Bguir found space to stab home a delectable diving header having been fed a cross from the right as the stadium went into rambunctious elation.

Anice Badri hammered in the third and final goal with an individual effort.

Esperance are an example of style being temporary and class being permanent.

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