Reigning champions TP Mazembe and six-time winners Al Ahly edged a step closer to the CAF Champions League final as both emerged triumphant from the first legs of their last-four duels.
Two late goals from Mazembe saw them top JS Kabylie 3-1 in scorching conditions at the Stade de la Kenya in Lubumbashi to establish a healthy advantage ahead of what is sure to be a difficult return trip to Algeria. Meanwhile, Al Ahly also clinched a hard-fought home 2-1 victory over Tunisian outfit Esperance in Cairo last night.
While the Egyptian giants will be content with the win, Esperance should return to Tunis upbeat after scoring an away goal that could well prove invaluable when the two sides meet for the second leg in a fortnight’s time. The Tunisian side staged a gutsy comeback, with skipper Oussema Darragi capitalising on a poor defensive clearance and punishing the hosts with a strike that may yet prove decisive.
The Red Devils, as Al Ahly are known, had piled on the pressure from the offing and were rewarded eight minutes before the interval when Mohamed Fadl opened the scoring. Ahmed Fathi then drove home a beautiful strike that extended the hosts' lead before Darragi struck to take the shine off Al Ahly's victory.
Mazembe leave it late
In the other semi-final, the 80-minute mark was reached with the match seemingly set for a 1-1 draw. However, a late surge from Mazembe resulted in two goals in quick succession that left a shell-shocked Kabylie with a mountain to climb in the second leg.
It was a special moment for Mazembe, who had managed to absorb plenty of pressure and resist Kabylie’s attacks, especially after the Algerians had equalised through Nabil Yaalaoui with 20 minutes to play. The goal was a result of a concerted effort by the visitors, who had regrouped impressively after giving up a goal inside the first ten minutes. While the North Africans can blame a number of issues for their unsettling start, including the sweltering conditions in Lubumbashi, they will certainly rue the last five minutes of this game, when they could not summon the stamina required to hang on for the draw.
Mazembe, who enjoyed healthy possession throughout the first half, had a dream start when, after only eight minutes, forward Dioko Kaluyituka connected with a cross to put the home side ahead. The goal brought Lubumbashi to its feet, but Kabylie’s Yaalaoui seemed to have cancelled it out before the late heroics. Kasongo Ngandu edged the home side ahead in the 83rd minute before Dioko added his second of the night in the dying minutes.
Pamphile Mihayo, the Mazembe captain, acknowledged that the result, while satisfactory, still leaves his team with plenty of work to do in the return leg. “I would have been more comfortable had we scored another goal," he said. "But even then, I cannot complain. We still have a mountain to climb in Algeria in a fortnight but I believe if we score a single goal, we should be home and dry.”