Ahly smiling as Esperance falter
© AFP

Despite only managing a 1-1 draw with arch-rivals Zamalek, record CAF Champions League winners Al Ahly fulfilled their aim of finishing top of Group B to avoid a tricky semi-final clash against holders Esperance of Tunisia. The Egyptian giants, who finish the group stage with 11 points, were handed a gift by TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Ghana’s Berekum Chelsea to end with 10 points. Ahly will face Nigeria’s Sunshine Stars, while Esperance will take on Mazembe in the competition’s two-legged semis.

Game of the week
Al Ahly 1-1 Zamalek
In stark contrast to their dull meeting in July, Ahly and Zamalek played out an exciting 1-1 draw in a Cairo derby that was played behind closed doors at the Egyptian Army Stadium in Alexandria. Zamalek, who have not beaten Ahly in 13 attempts since a league win in 2007, took the lead on the stroke of half-time thanks to a goal from lively playmaker Mohamed Ibrahim. The White Knights were unlucky not to double their lead in the second half as they squandered the chance to put the result beyond doubt after wasting some gilt-edged opportunities. Ahly, who played without several key figures as coach Hossam El Badry feared they might miss the last four with suspension, took advantage of Zamalek’s wastefulness to level the score two minutes past the hour mark behind a goal from second-half substitute Mohamed Barakat. The veteran attacking midfielder had his initial shot blocked by a defender following a corner, but his follow-up effort from inside the area went in off the bar. It was the second point for five-time champions Zamalek in a hugely disappointing group-stage campaign, while Ahly will be favourites to defeat Nigeria’s Sunshine Stars in the semis as they bid to win their seventh trophy but first since 2008.

The surprise
ASO Chlef 1-0 Esperance
Defending champions Esperance, who had already ensured their progress to the semis as Group A winners, suffered their first Champions League defeat in more than 17 months after losing 1-0 to bottom side ASO Chlef of Algeria. Cameroon-born striker Anicet Eyenga notched the winner after 25 minutes with a simple tap-in after Esperance keeper Wassim Naouara could only parry a tame free-kick into his path. A depleted Esperance side still had several chances in the second half to secure a share of spoils, but they could not make use of them as Chlef won their first group match. Tunisian coach Nabil Maaloul also opted to leave out several key players to avoid suspensions and injuries, including goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia, highly-rated midfielder Youssef Msakni and Cameroonian striker Yannick N'Djeng. It was their first Champions League defeat since they lost 2-0 to Benin’s ASPAC FC in the second leg of a preliminary-round game in March 2011. Esperance, who will face four-time winners Mazembe in the semis, are aiming to win a third continental title and second in a row.

Other matches
Needing a win to make sure they finish on top of Group B, Mazembe lost 1-0 at already-eliminated Berekum Chelsea of Ghana to finish second behind Ahly and set up a mouth-watering semi-final clash against Esperance, a rematch of the final from two years ago. Despite missing inspirational striker and Champions League top scorer Emmanuel Clottey, who finalized an agreement to join Esperance later this year, Chelsea managed to snatch all three points with a late strike. Ghanaian midfielder Jordan Opuku scored the winner with six minutes remaining when he was found unmarked by a deft chipped pass, controlling on his chest and scoring with aplomb for the debutants.

Player of the week
Mohamed Ibrahim, Zamalek’s best performer in the group stage, kept Ahly defenders on their toes with some catchy feints during Sunday’s game. The diminutive playmaker, who was one of the three attacking midfielders supporting lone striker Ahmed Gaafar, opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time after a fine individual effort. The 20-year-old, who surprisingly missed out on Egypt’s squad for the Olympic Games this year, cut inside two challengers on the left to place a low shot past Ahly goalkeeper Sherif Ekrami.

The stat
19 –
The number of Champions League matches Esperance had gone unbeaten before losing on Friday. Had they avoided a defeat, the Blood and Gold would have surpassed a record held by Ahly, although the Tunisians had already eclipsed the record once after beating compatriots Etoile Sahel last month, but the result was annulled after the latter were kicked out of the competition following crowd trouble.

What they said

“I didn’t care about the identity of the team we would face in the semis, but the joy Ahly players and technical staff members showed because they will not play against us underscored our strength.” Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul.

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