Bertrand Marchand was still maintaining that "all is still possible", but the Etoile Sahel coach must have been left fearing the worst after his side made little use of home advantage in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final on Saturday. The Frenchman had spoken confidently pre-match of Etoile's prospects against a "lucky" Al Ahly side, but in the end he witnessed another typically efficient performance from the Egyptians giants to force a goalless draw at their Tunisian hosts' hitherto fortress in Sousse.
The result edged Ahly ever closer to a record third successive
continental title, and with their pre-match target having been
secured in composed, clinical style, their coach was understandably
delighted. "Our tactics were to stop any possible progress of
Etoile and we have come and achieved our objective," said
Manuel Jose, whose side have won ten major titles since his return
to the helm. "We told Etoile we would be hard to beat, even
when we play away and now that we have the advantage and we will be
paying at home (in the second leg), we are confident of a third
Even the often-bullish Marchand admitted that the final is now effectively Ahly's to lose. He said: "We knew we were up against a giant team that would always make things difficult for us. But we proved ourselves. We had four good chances to score and we should have got at least one goal, but unfortunately that was not the case. Such is the game, we could even have also lost by a goal which would have complicated matters. Our chances are still intact for the return leg, the pressure is now on the home team. The only advantage they might have, is that they are playing at home."
'An extraordinary night'
Marchand watched in exasperation as Mohamed Ali Nafkha hit the woodwork with the best chance for the Tunisian side in the first half, but he also ensured moments of near-anguish at the other end as Ahly probed and tested his team's rearguard.
Nafka's chance came following a clever steal from team-mate Amine Chermiti, who exploited the only mistake of the night from Ahly's experienced defence, robbing Egypt international Wael Gomaa before setting up the opportunity. Chermiti certainly showed glimpses of his prodigious talent, but though the 19-year-old clearly wasn't fazed by facing some of Africa's top defenders, clear-cut opportunities were in short supply.
If anything, it was the Egyptians who were left to rue that the game's best chances went begging. Ahly, after all, forced three free-kicks on the edge of Etoile's area and each time the normally reliable and accurate Mohamed Aboutrika failed to test the goalkeeper. The last of these came after a professional foul on Mohamed Barakat for which Etoile full-back Mehdi Meriah received his marching orders, ruling him out of the return leg in Cairo on 9 November.
Barakat himself will also sit out that match after being yellow carded for simulation in the first half, although Jose was keen to play down the absence of one of his most experienced and influential players. Speaking to the press in his Portuguese homeland on Monday, the coach said simply: "We are going to Cairo to win a third consecutive Champions League and set up an extraordinary night in the history of the club."