Cairo giants Al Ahly had to overcome a number of obstacles en route to an unprecedented eighth CAF Champions League title, which also sees the Red Devils qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco at the end of the year.
A long period of unrest in Egypt led to the cancellation of the domestic league, and for much of the campaign the most successful African club of all time were banned from playing their home matches in Cairo due to fears of violence. They also played two matches in the middle of Ramadan fasting, losing a tremendous record of not having lost at home in the process. That defeat saw the defending champions with just one point from their two opening group phase matches, but all of that was forgotten when Al Ahly secured another star with a 2-0 victory against South African representatives Orlando Pirates in the Arab Contractors Stadium, which authorities had allowed to be used for the home leg, enabling 35,000 die-hard Ahly fans to celebrate the 3-1 aggregate victory.
The Red Devils found their form when it mattered, advancing from round to round in professional fashion. As defending champions, they entered the competition in the first round of qualification and overcame Kenyan club Tusker 4-1 after winning both matches (2-0 and 2-1). In the next round they faced much sterner opposition in the form of CA Bizertin, winning the home leg 2-1 after playing to a goalless draw in Tunisia.
In the group phase, they got off to a slow start, drawing their opening game against local rivals Zamalek 1-1 and then slumping to an embarrassing 3-0 home defeat against Orlando Pirates to find themselves three points adrift of early pace-setters. That saw the club needing to get a win away in Congo against a tough AC Leopards side in their third match, and they managed just that, winning through Walid Soliman's first-half goal. From there, it was no looking back and victories at home against Zamalek and Leopards ensured a semi-final berth ahead of their final game.
In the semi-final, Al Ahly were taken to a penalty shoot-out by Cameroonian team Coton Sport after both legs of the tie ended in 1-1 draws. Ahmed Fathi scored the winner with the third kick in sudden-death to set up the final with Pirates, who had done the Red Devils a huge favour by eliminating Tunisian giants Esperance in the other semi-final.
In an Al Ahly team filled with internationals, veteran Mohamed Aboutrika stood out. Not only did the attacking midfielder score the important away-goal in the first leg of the final in Johannesburg, he also put his side ahead in the return leg. The talismanic figure was given a standing ovation when coach Mohamed Youssef substituted him a few minutes from the end of what might have been his last official game for the Red Devils. Walid Soliman was another player who impressed for the champions. Not only did the playmaker weigh in with three goals in the event, he also created several others. In defence, goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy has finally managed to persuade fans that he is the real deal, while 38-year-old captain Wael Gomaa showed that he can still compete at the highest level.
Pirates clearly missed two of their stand-out players in Happy Jele and Andile Jali in the second leg of the final after the two picked up their second bookings of the tournament in the first match. It was not the only disappointment for Pirates' coach Roger de Sa, who also saw star defender Siyabonga Sangweni sidelined for the latter parts of the tournament after needing an operation on his Achilles tendon. Goalkeeper Loic Feudjou played a large part in helping Coton Sport reach the semi-finals, while Cameroonian striker Joseph Yannick Ndjeng continued to star for Esperance. Mamadou Soro scored all five goals for Ivorian club AFAD Djekanou in their 5-1 victory against Diamond Stars in the first round and added a sixth in the next round against Coton Sport but played no further part in the competition after his club were eliminated.
Congolese club AS Leopards' fairy-tale run through African club competitions continued far longer than most fans would have expected as they kept their hopes of reaching the semi-finals alive until the very last game of the group phase, when a defeat at Zamalek ended their dream of adding the Champions League title to the CAF Confederations Cup they sensationally lifted the year before.
Coton Sport only started their group phase once a world-wide suspension of the Cameroon federation had been lifted and then lost their first game to Esperance. They then started a run of four matches without defeat to book their place in the last four, where they gave champions Al Ahly a huge fright.
Although being eliminated from the competition with two matches to go, Angolan champions Recreativo do Libolo showed that they not only play attractive football, they are also competitive, inflicting the only Champions League defeat of the season on group winners Esperance, who bowed out on the away-goal rule in the semi-finals after drawing both matches with Orlando Pirates.
Did you know?
Al Ahly share the record of participation in the FIFA Club World Cup with New Zealand team Auckland City. Morocco 2013 will be the fifth time that the two clubs compete in the global club competition.
23 - Al Ahly's success in the Champions League is based - in part - on an incredible home record that saw the Cairo club unbeaten in 23 matches in the group phase of the competition. Although Pirates ended the run with a stunning 3-0 victory, the Egyptians were stung into winning the country its 15th Champions League title.
What they said
"We dealt with the game on the basis of 180 minutes and succeeded with our job in the first 90 minutes in Johannesburg and then finished it off at home. We were very cautious of Pirates because they are a good side and eliminated clubs like Mazembe and Esperance. Winning the Champions League is the first step, the next step is the Club World Cup," Al Ahly coach Mohamed Youssef.
"Al Ahly did a fantastic job and are a deserving champion. I think we lost in the first leg in Johannesburg when we drew 1-1 and from there it was always going to be very difficult. I am disappointed, but if anybody had told me at the start of the campaign that we would be the second strongest team in Africa, I would have taken that," Pirates coach Roger de Sa.
Winners: Al Ahly*
Runners-up: Orlando Pirates
Losing semi-finalists: Coton Sport and Esperance de Tunis
*Qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013
7: Alexis Yougouda Kada (Coton Sport)
6: Ahmed Gaafar (Zamalek), Mamadou Soro (AFAD Djekanou)
5: Takesure Chinyama (Orlando Pirates), Abdoulaye Cisse (Zamalek), Kevin Zougoula (Sewe Sport), Mohamed Aboutrika (Al Ahly)
Leading goalscorers in recent seasons
2010: Michael Eneramo (Esperance), 8
2011: Edward Sadomba (Al-Hilal), 7
2012: Emmanuel Clottey (Berekum Chelsea), 12