Cairo giants Al Ahly have taken an important step toward winning an unprecedented eighth CAF Champions League title by securing a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the final against Orlando Pirates in South Africa. The winner of the two-legged final will not only be crowned continental champions and pick up the major prize money that goes with the title, they will also earn the right to represent the continent at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in December.
Pirates leave it late
A capacity crowd in the Orlando Stadium saw the home side make the early play, with Lennox Bacela having the first shot at goal. Somewhat against the run of play, the Buccaneers allowed the holders to take the lead in the 14th minute by giving away a free-kick on the edge of the box. Mohamed Aboutrika, whose participation in the game was in doubt before the start due to flu, curled the ball around the wall and into the top left corner of the goal. After going behind, Pirates continued to up the pressure but found good scoring opportunities hard to come by as the Red Devils' defence closed rank. Pirates' attacking attitude allowed Al Ahly chances on the break and Ahmed Abdel Zaher should have doubled the score just before the break, but his shot was blocked by Senzo Meyiwa.
On the hour, Al Ahly captain Wael Gomaa had to be at his best to deflect Bacela's goal-bound shot, while minutes later Sherif Ekramy pulled off a spectacular save to deny Andile Jali. Walid Soliman then had another opportunity for Ahly as he was set up in the area by Aboutrika, but he failed to connect properly and shot wide. Pirates were finally rewarded for their efforts deep into injury time, when defender Thabo Matlaba managed to evade Ahmed Fathi and unleashed a powerful shot that Ekramy could do nothing to stop.
After the late equaliser, Pirates coach Roger De Sa said afterwards he believed his side could still win the title. "I think we are in with a fighting chance going to Egypt. We will have a go and with the team that we've got, we certainly have the character to turn it around."
Pirates' fans will draw some consolation from the fact that their sole continental title in 1995 came after a 2-2 draw at home against ASEC Mimosas, followed by a 1-0 victory in Abidjan. They also stunned Al Ahly 3-0 in Egypt in the group phase of this competition.
Moment of the game
For the small number of Al Ahly fans in the Orlando Stadium the moment of the game came early in the first half when the Red Devils were awarded a free-kick some five metres from the edge of the box after Ayanda Gcaba brought down Abdalla Said. One of the great Egyptian players of all time, Aboutrika's wicked free kick gave goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa no chance to prevent a vital away goal.
What they said
"It was not even our ground when we lost to Pirates [in the group stage]. It was at El Gouna Stadium, and we were fasting. For the second leg, we will play in our ground in Cairo, and we are not fasting … Things will be different at home when we have the support of our fans," Al Ahly coach Mohamed Youssef.
Player of the game
Defender Thabo Matlaba was criticised after Pirates' 1-1 draw in Tunis against Esperance after trying to score even though there were better-placed team-mates around. At the time the South African international was defended by his coach, and it is an indication of the confidence of the 25-year-old that, when confronted with a similar situation against Al Ahly three minutes into injury time, Matlaba again took on the responsibility, but this time with a very different outcome as his powerful shot from 25 metres gave Orlando Pirates the draw.
Stat of the Match
7 - The number of games that Al Ahly have failed to win in South Africa against South African opposition. Before Saturday's game, they had drawn four times and lost two - all in the Champions League. Al Ahly has also lost the CAF Super Cup final in South Africa, though that was to local rivals Zamalek.
Have your say
Can Ahly protect their away goal and defend their title next weekend?