SOUSSE, Tunisia: Al-Ahly closed on a record third consecutive African Champions League title after holding Etoile Sahel of Tunisia 0-0 in the first leg of the final Saturday.
Etoile failed to convert the two chances of a tight, tense clash and finished with 10 men after the 80th-minute dismissal of Mehdi Meriah for a professional foul.
The Tunisian ‘Red Devils’ must fear the worst ahead of the return match in Cairo on Nov. 9 as they were also held goalless at home by Ahly in the 2005 final and crumbled 3-0 away.
French coach Bertrand Marchand boasted ahead of the African club football showpiece that Etoile would punish opponents he claimed were ageing, off-form, lucky and over reliant on experience.
But apart from a couple of defensive slips, Al Ahly were not unduly troubled as they continued the pursuit not only of a third title in a row but also a record sixth success in a competition they first won 25 years ago.
Etoile have lifted every African Football Confederation club trophy except the Champions League, where they also finished runners-up in 2004 having come short in a penalty shootout against Enyimba of Nigeria.
While Mohamed Ali Nafkha was deprived by the woodwork after 32 minutes and Gilson ‘Ja’ Silva blazed wide when through early in the second half for Etoile, Al Ahly had two genuine penalty appeals rejected.
Mohamed Barakat was shown a yellow card by the Cameroon referee for diving when television replays suggested Mejdi Ettraoui held him inside the penalty area.
And Al Ahly were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box after it appeared Moussa Narry had fouled leading Al Ahly scorer Flavio Amado inside the area just before half-time.
A match watched by a sell-out 25,000 crowd in the Mediterranean resort produced six cautions and boiled over 10 minutes from full-time when Meriah was given a red card for obstructing Barakat.
After promising a three-man strike force, Marchand left Ghanaian striker Sadat Bukari on the bench until midway through the second half when the failure of ‘Ja’ and teenager Amine Chermiti to break through prompted booing.
Manuel Jose, the Portuguese coach who has guided Al Ahly to three of the Champions League titles, was also cautious, fielding only one recognized striker in Angolan Amado.
Chermiti dispossessed Wael Gomaa to set up Nafkha, whose shot was parried by veteran goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadary on to the far post and the ball rebounded to safety.
It is rare to see the centre of the Al Ahly defense split open and Cape Verdian ‘Ja’ fluffed a glorious chance to break the deadlock with a wild shot at the Olympic Stadium.
Well policed by experienced Egyptian defenders, Tunisian teenager Chermiti finally found space in the last minute and forced Al-Hadary into pushing the ball away for one of many corners forced by Etoile.