CAIRO: Star-studded Al Ahly are just one victory away from two African Champions League records.
Success against Etoile Sahel of Tunisia on Friday in the second leg of the final will bring Al Ahly a third consecutive title and a sixth overall in the premier club competition on the continent.
And after a goalless first leg in Tunisia two weeks ago, the odds favor Al Ahly lifting the trophy before a sell-out 80,000 crowd likely to include President Hosni Mubarak.
While Al Ahly know all about conquering Africa having won the Champions League three times in the past six years, Etoile know all about the heartache of falling at the final hurdle.
They lost the 2004 decider against Enyimba of Nigeria after a penalty shootout and were outclassed 3-0 by Al Ahly in Cairo the following year following a goalless first encounter.
Will history repeat itself? Perhaps the victory margin may not be as wide, but only the most partisan Etoile supporters believe success awaits their heroes in the intimidating Cairo Stadium cauldron.
Al Ahly boast a perfect home record this year, beating Highlanders of Zimbabwe 2-0, Sundowns of South Africa 2-0, Hilal of Sudan 2-0, Esperance of Tunisia 3-0, ASEC of Ivory Coast 2-0 and Ittihad of Libya 1-0 en route to the final.
An average of two goals per game scored and none conceded tells a tale of relentless, patient probing against packed rearguards, and a superb defense marshaled by veteran goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadary.
Etoile have a mixed away record, scoring five goals and conceding four when beating Fello Star of Guinea, FAR Rabat of Morocco and JS Kabylie of Algeria, drawing with Maranatha Fiokpo of Togo and losing to Ittihad and Hilal.
The Egyptian Red Devils, a nickname they share with Etoile, will sorely miss suspended Mohamed Barakat but fellow midfielders Mohamed Abou Treika and Angolan Felisberto “Gilberto Amaral return after injury.
Suspensions also hit Etoile with Captain Seif Ghazel and fellow defender Mehdi Meriah ruled out of a match that earns the winners one million dollars plus a place at the end-of-year FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.
While Al Ahly coach Manuel Jose is adored in the sand speckled streets of Cairo having been responsible for three of the five titles, opposite number Bertrand Marchand from France is reportedly facing the axe should Etoile fail.
Marchand was surprisingly upbeat before the first game in the Mediterranean resort of Sousse, branding Al Ahly a team of off-form, ageing stars, over reliant on luck for success.
Normally first out of the verbal starting stalls, Jose did not fall for the bait and kept quiet ahead of a first leg in which Etoile created few scoring chances and Al Ahly had at least one genuine penalty appeal rejected.
Greying Jose has preached caution this week, warning that Etoile are dangerous rivals with young strikers Amine Chermiti and Gilson Ja Silva likely to have more space in Cairo than Sousse as Al Ahly show greater adventure.
And Marchand is not in the market for a white flag, insisting his team will attack in Cairo as they seek a grand slam having won the other four African Football Confederation club competitions. Agence France-Presse