Weighing the odds for an Al-Ahli win
CAIRO: Our all too brief one-game winning streak of correct predictions came to an abrupt halt when Egypt’s Al-Ahli drew 1-1 with Sfaxien of Tunisia in the first leg of the African Champions League final in Cairo two weeks ago. We had said Al-Ahli would win by a goal, but what do we know? We should be given credit for being close, but nobody cares about almosts.
Nevertheless, like all good sports critics with questionable methods of analyses, we shall carry on to the bitter end, to the endgame of this 10-month, 14-match odyssey that concludes in Rades Stadium in Tunisia tonight.
The projected outcome of today’s winner-takes-all encounter is to be found in the last paragraph, but if you’re interested in knowing how we reached this inimitable result, you are strongly urged to read this invaluable study in its entirety.
Al-Ahli are in tatters. They have hobbled into Rades with seven starters out of service: five are injured, two yellow-carded. Neither Barcelona, nor Chelsea nor AC Milan could lift a major continental championship when more than half the team is not working. Should Al-Ahli do any better?
And with this supporting cast, Al-Ahli must score at least one goal in hostile environs if they are to capture the title. Al-Ahli can put the goal in the net. They have notched up a respectable 14 goals in the championship, three against Sfaxien, and five altogether in foreign lands, including one against ASEC of the Ivory Coast, the first goal conceded by ASEC at home in six games.
Despite Al-Ahli’s depleted state, they still have Mohamed Abu Treika and Emad Meteb who between them have scored 12 times. The question is whether the club’s young charges, substituting for the big boys, can show enough poise and be useful aides.
Al-Ahli must also grapple with a history not kind to those in the situation the club finds itself. Only two clubs have ever won the African Champions League twice in a row, DR Congo s TP Mazembe Englebert in 1968 and Nigeria s Enyimba two years ago. Though Zamalek hold the record of five crowns, never did two come in succession. The African cup has gone Al-Ahli’s way four times, but again Al-Ahli has never been able to put together more than a one-season winning streak.
Al-Ahli must also enter the return match knowing that in the past 40 African Champion League finals, only four clubs have been in a similar predicament but beat the odds and conquered the continent.
Meanwhile, Sfaxien are one step away from taking their first African Champions League, and are loving every minute of it. They surpassed even their own expectations by reaching their first Champions League final and now find themselves in the unaccustomed role of favorites.
Sfaxien are far from being the biggest or most popular club in Tunisia. That description fits Esperance, Club Africain and Etoile du Sahel. Sfaxien are provincial, akin to Mehalla here in Egypt. That Sfaxien is often in the backseat of Tunisian football has, if anything, galvanized the team. So dwarfed are they in their homeland, that being so close to becoming Africa s best is proving to be a tremendous incentive.
It also helps that Sfaxien became the first side to beat Al-Ahli on African soil in more than two years when they triumphed 1-0 in the group phase of the competition. And two weeks ago, Sfaxien’s ability to come from a goal down to tie with Al-Ahli in front of 80,000 opposing fans was evidence of what they can do.
Conclusion: We hate to say it, but Sfaxien will be drinking the bubbly tonight. Every Sfaxien has his day and that day is tonight. Of course, and not for the first time, we could be wrong.