CAIRO: The stars from Egyptian club giants Al-Ahli have already broken the hearts of Ivory Coast football followers this year. And on Sunday night the Red Devils will try to do so again, this time when title holders Ahli host ASEC Abidjan in the first leg of an African Champions League semi-final. Last February at a Cairo Stadium crammed to its 80,000 capacity, an Egyptian national team dominated by Ahli players edged Ivory Coast 4-2 on penalties after 120 goalless minutes to lift the African Nations Cup.
While the Pharaohs celebrated a record fifth title, Ivorians found it difficult to understand how their team of Europe-based professionals like Didier Drogba had failed to overcome the largely local-based Egyptians. Now supporters throughout the politically fragile west African nation must hope Bakary Soro-led ASEC can succeed where dreadlocked Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Arsenal defender Kolo Toure and company failed.
Most neutrals dreamt of an Ahli-ASEC climax to the $3.5 million competition, but JS Kabylie held the defending champions in Algeria two weeks ago and relegated them to second place in Group A.
Ahli have missed defender Emad Al-Nahas and midfield magician Mohamed Barakat, both long-term injury victims, and lack the cutting edge which swept them to a fourth Champions League title last year.
ASEC should prove worthy foes, losing only once and conceding just two goals in 12 qualifying and pool matches, and their smooth, passing game cultivated by tall, animated French coach Patrick Liewig is a delight to watch.
While Ahli and ASEC were considered title contenders from the start of the championship, Orlando Pirates of South Africa and Club Sportif Sfaxien of Tunisia, who meet in Johannesburg Saturday, have exceeded expectations.
Mamelodi Sundowns, considered the strongest South African challengers, made a shock second round exit to unheralded USCAFOOT of Madagascar, leaving 1995 Champions League winners Pirates to carry the hopes of the Rainbow Nation.
And after finishing runners-up in 2004 and 2005, Etoile Sahel looked the most powerful Tunisian candidates for glory ahead of raw, star-less CSS from the Mediterranean town of Sfax.
Alas, Etoile bit the dust in the final qualifying round, losing a penalty shootout to Hearts of Oak from Ghana, while Sfaxien survived a qualifying program from hell.
Down to 10 men in Kinshasa and Rabat, the Tunisians pulled off solitary-goal victories drenched in heroism and another one-goal triumph, in their first pool fixture, ended a 78-match unbeaten run by Ahli in Africa spanning two years.
Pirates have been combative rather than spectacular with a gem of a goal from Nigerian Onyekachi Okonkwo seeing off compatriots Enyimba in a Johannesburg showdown that settled who advanced from Group B with ASEC.
But the Buccaneers have struggled up front, scoring only three goals in six pool outings, while ASEC ruthlessly exposed defensive weaknesses in Abidjan, striking four times without reply.
Serb coach Milutin Sredojevic responded to the mauling by axing goalkeeper Francis Chansa and Avril Phadi kept a clean sheet against Enyimba, a feat no custodian has managed in the Champions League this year against Sfaxien.
The return matches are set for mid-October with the winners advancing to a two-leg final that carries a $1 million first prize and an invitation to the FIFA club world championship in Japan during December. AFP