The impossible dream edged ever closer to the realms of reality yesterday as CS Sfaxien celebrated a 1-1 draw away to Al Ahly in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final that leaves the Tunisian underdogs within touching distance of a first-ever title in Africa's premier club competition.
They needed to fight a strong rearguard action to survive wave after wave of Al Ahly attacks at times, but Sfaxien's resolute defending enabled them to return from Cairo with the upper hand over the much-fancied defending champions. Many had tipped the first leg to end in an easy home win, but the fighting qualities which have marked the Tunisians' progress to the deciding tie were once again in evidence throughout a pulsating second half that saw them come from behind to grab a draw.
The outcome? Job done for Sfaxien, for the moment at least, although they will know that Al Ahly will not relinquish their crown without a fight in the return leg at Rades on 11 November.
The visitors' hero on Sunday was Joetex Frimpong, who topped the Champions League scoring charts last season in the colours of Nigeria's Enyimba, and this time scored a potentially vital away goal early in the second half to claw back Al Ahly's 1-0 half-time lead. Spurred on by their industrious captain Anis Boujelbene in the midfield, Sfaxien had begun the second period at a ferocious pace and when Fatah Gharbi's speculative cross from the left eluded the Al Ahly defence in 5 minutes, the Ghanaian Frimpong was on hand at the back post to slide it home.
The goal brought an eerie silence to the 75,000-strong crowd which had packed into the Cairo International stadium, and who, prior to that point, had seen their side execute a near-perfect game plan. Certainly, in the first half, Al Ahly's relentless pressing game in midfield never allowed Sfaxien to settle, and kept them pinned back in their own half throughout the opening 45.
An early warning shot was fired across the Tunisian bows when Emad Moteab struck the upright with a header in the 15th minute, and it came as no surprise whatsoever when Al Ahly took the lead 12 minutes later. Nevertheless, Sfaxien would have been desperately disappointed that an innocuous looking free kick from Mohamed Aboutrika was allowed to elude their goalkeeper Ahmed Jaouchi and a clutter of bodies inside the box to sail straight into the back of the net.
Shedid the star
At this stage, however, there was no injustice to the scoreline. Aboutrika's seventh goal of the campaign was only what the Egyptians had deserved for peppering the nervous-looking Jaouchi with shots throughout some one-sided opening exchanges. Indeed, had his strike partner Flavio, the Angolan international, been sharper, Al Ahly's half-time lead would certainly have been a great deal more emphatic.
The holders had thrived on a supply line of crosses from the left, where coach Manuel Jose had surprised everyone by employing Ahmed Shedid in place of the injured Tarek Said. It was only the second outing for the youngster in this year's competition, yet he teased and tormented the Sfaxien right-back Amir Haj Massaoud and set up a myriad of chances for his mis-firing team-mates.
However, after the beak Shedid's avenues for attack were closed by Sfaxien coach Mrad Majhjoub and, once the Tunisians had equalized, the spark seemed to disappear from Al Ahly's attack. With Osama Hosni injured and Mohamed Barakat not yet back to full match fitness, Jose was limited for options and had to watch as his side struggled to try and regain their lead as Sfaxien disrupted play and refused to allow the hosts to gather momentum during a stop-start final 20 minutes.
Al Ahly will now reflect with concern on their lack of away form in this year's CAF Champions League. In six matches on the road en route to the final, they have won just once, a record they will need to put right in a fortnight's time if they are to retain their title and go onto represent Africa at the FIFA Club World Cup in December.