Al Ahly have pulled off some dramatic finishes in recent times and they dug deep once again at the weekend to score a last-gasp winner for a place in this year’s CAF Champions League group stage.
A glorious long-range goal from teenager Ahmed Shehab three minutes into stoppage time of their third round, second leg tie at home to Al Ittihad of Libya on Sunday ensured a 3-0 win for the Egyptian giants, securing progress to the lucrative last eight 3-2 on aggregate. It meant the Cairo giants avoided both being forced into the lottery of a penalty shootout, plus the ignominy of last year’s early elimination, when they were sent tumbling out at this stage of the competition.
Al Ahly’s progress ensures a formidable field for the group phase, which will start one week after the completion of the FIFA World Cup in mid-July. Indeed, there are five former African champions whose names will go into this week’s draw in Cairo.
Compatriots Ismaili join Al Ahly, as do two Algerian clubs, JS Kabylie and Entente Setif. Ismaili won the old style Champions Cup in 1969, JSK in 1981 and 1990, and Entente Setif some 22 years ago. Defending champions TP Mazembe Englebert of Congo DR coasted through, as did Esperance, the Tunisian club who last won Africa’s top prize in 1994. Esperance are again among this year’s favourites after overcoming Al Merreikh of Sudan.
Also qualifying are Dynamos of Zimbabwe and Heartland FC of Nigeria, who were the runners-up last season. However, the field for the league phase has a heavy north African presence, with five of out of the eight clubs hailing from the Arabic-speaking part of the continent. There is just one west African side and two from south of the Equator, while Setif are the only newcomers to the league format, which was first introduced in 1997.
Al Ahly won the CAF Champions League in 2006 with virtually the last kick of the game, coming back in dramatic fashion to snatch the title. It was the same on Sunday as they staged a late rally to save their campaign and stay on course for more record-breaking feats.
Two goals down from the first leg in Libya, they were unable to break down Al Ittihad in the first half, sending ripples of panic through the crowd in Cairo. However, Emad Moteab began the comeback, marking his return from injury with the opening goal, which was followed by a second from Mohamed Fadl. That brought the teams level as time ticked away. At 2-2 on aggregate, the tie looked set for the agony of post-match penalties before Shehab’s dramatic winner.
The 19-year-old, a product of the club’s youth system, said he had been encouraged by coach Hossam Al Badri to shoot from distance, and became an instant hero when his 30-metre effort sailed into the net. “He told me to shoot on target whenever I have the chance. He believes in my capabilities,” Shehab told reporters after the game.
Algeria’s JS Kabylie and Entente Setif had to battle away in their respective Sunday matches but the rest of the third round, second leg match turned out to be less dramatic. JS Kabylie lost 2-1 at Petro Atletico in Luanda but went through 3-2 over the two legs. It was the same aggregate scoreline for Setif, whose match in Lusaka against Zanaco ebbed and flowed before ending in a 2-2 draw.
“I’m very satisfied with the achievement of my team,” said coach Noureddine Zekri after the match. “We did have some anxious moments in the game because of fatigue but the players showed a lot of heart. It was a good match against a tough Zambian side in difficult conditions.”
Tresor Mputu was once again on target as Mazembe strolled to a 3-0 win over Djoliba in Kinshasa on Sunday, scoring the second in a match that also witnessed Kaluyitu Kadiogo and Alain Katuyudioko find the target. Heartland FC, meanwhile, knocked out the South African champions SuperSport United with a 3-1 home win in Owerri.