Problems mount for African champs Al-Ahly
Depressed stars, a suspended coach and an empty stadium are problems facing CAF Champions League title-holders, Al-Ahly of Egypt this weekend.
The Cairo ‘Red Devils’ meet Cameroonian visitors Coton Sport in the second leg of a semifinal having drawn 1-1 away two weeks ago.
But what seemed like a routine assignment for the record seven-time African champions took a dramatic negative turn this week.
Ahly supplied eight of the Egypt side humiliated 6-1 by Ghana in a World Cup play-off, all but ending hopes of a place at the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Realising his dream of competing at a World Cup had been dashed a final time, veteran midfielder Mohamed Abou Trika said he would retire when the Champions League campaign finishes.
And it would be no surprise if 38-year-old defensive marshal Wael Gomaa followed suit after being reduced to a helpless bystander as Ghana ran riot.
Goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy conceded four of the goals before retiring with a knee injury that could keep him out of the Coton fixture.
The state of the other five Ahly starters in Kumasi – Hossam Ashour, Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Naguib, Ahmed Shedid, Walid Soliman – must concern coach Mohamed Youssef.
“Ahly have to be humble against Coton,” he warned. “Nothing is impossible in football and the Cameroonians still have an opportunity to reach the final.”
A former Ahly defender, Youssef must watch the match from the stand at the 12 000-seat El-Gouna Stadium in a Red Sea resort 450 kilometres north of Cairo.
He was banned from the touchline for one match after being red-carded during the first leg in Garoua for showing dissent to the match officials.
A further blow to Ahly will be a lack of support as they serve the second half of a two-match crowd ban over fighting between their supporters.
With no rivals to vent their anger against before a group game, Ahly fans fought each other, forcing police to use tear gas before restoring order.
It was so different the last time Coton visited Egypt, losing 2-0 to Ahly in the first leg of the 2008 final before a capacity 73 000 Cairo Stadium crowd.
The central Africans hope six-goal leading scorer Alexis Kada can rediscover the finishing touch that has deserted him in recent outings.
Ahly edged long-time rivals Esperance of Tunisia to win the premier African club competition last year, surprisingly winning 2-1 away after a 1-1 first-leg stalemate.
And should they conquer Coton, Esperance may well be the final opponents again as they host Orlando Pirates having forced a 0-0 draw in South Africa.
“I expect to meet Ahly in the final once more,” Esperance coach Maher Kanzari told a Tunisian radio station ahead of the second leg at Stade Olympique in a Tunis suburb.
But Pirates coach Roger de Sa countered: “A win at home would have been a better result, but my main priority was not to concede a goal.
“This enables us to take on Esperance with a fighting chance of reaching the final, given any goal we score counts double should the game be drawn.”
Another tight tussle is likely with Esperance shot-stopper Moez Ben Cherifia keeping clean sheets in four of five CAF home games this season.
Having struck seven goals in African games against Ahly and fellow Egyptians Zamalek, Pirates managed just one in their last four Champions League outings.