It’s not a groundbreaking statement to say that this Al-Ahly team are not one of the vintage sides in the club’s history.
Their limitations have been exposed on various occasions in the Caf Champions League so far this season, while domestically, recent home draws against El Entag El Harby and Ismaily have highlighted their ineffectiveness in front of goal.
Only a couple of members of this squad could have held their own in Ahly’s great teams of the past, but despite their limitations, the Cairene giants appear firmly on course for a record-extending ninth Champions League title after defeating ES Setif 2-0 in their semi-final first leg on Tuesday.
Ahly are finding their rhythm and momentum at just the right time after a campaign that has stuttered at times.
Their imperiousness was memorably demolished during the group stage, when they were defeated 2-0 away in Kira by KCCA FC—group-stage debutants and the first Ugandan side to reach this stage of the competition.
Ahly laboured for much of that contest, and were undone in the final 16 minutes when Ibrahim Sadam Juma and Timothy Awany scored late for the hosts, to leave the Egyptian heavyweights with just one point from their opening two matches.
To their credit, they rallied to win all four of their remaining group-stage matches, as both Township Rollers and KCCA FC lost their way after the World Cup pause.
Steadily, Ahly’s key men—Walid Azaro, Walid Soliman, new arrival Salif Coulibaly and Ali Maaloul—began to take a handle on contests and establish the Egyptians’ dominance, although the Red Devils’ winning streak was halted by a resolute Horoya side away in Guinea in their quarter-final first leg.
H.A.C. deserve immense credit for that rugged defensive display, even if they were thrashed 4-0 in the return match in Cairo.
Considering some of Ahly’s struggles to beat teams like Horoya, KCCA, Ismaily and Entag earlier in the season, ES Setif will have been quietly confident when they headed to the Al-Salam Stadium for Tuesday’s semi-final first leg.
After all, the Algerians—not the most glamorous of clubs—make no bones about relying on their defensive organisation and resiliency to down bigger sides.
It was their dogged defence which secured their shock quarter-final progression against Wydad Casablanca—denying Africa something of a ‘dream’ semi between Ahly and the reigning champions.
After taking a narrow 1-0 victory in Setif following Isla Daoudi Diomande’s opener, the Algerians held firm both home and away, as Wydad ran out of ideas.
They weren’t able to repeat the feat in Cairo, as goals from Soliman and Islam Mohareb gave Ahly a 2-0 lead, although things might have been different if the visitors had been more clinical in front of goal.
Soliman, so impressive against Horoya, was again the game’s outstanding individual, and continues to roll back the years with the kind of technical quality and confidence in possession that few other Africa-based players could match.
It's hard to see how Setif will turn the tie around, not least because this Ahly side under Patrice Carteron knows how to defend as a unit, with attacking players not shirking their defensive duties when the phase of play demands it.
The Frenchman deserves credit for the improvement he’s overseen since taking over in mid-June, in the aftermath of the KCCA defeat, and his experience at this level of competition should ensure that Ahly get over the line.
While Primeiro de Agosto secured the first-leg victory over Esperance de Tunis in their semi-final first leg, that tie is not a given.
The Angolans dispatched Tout Puissant Mazembe in the quarters, and demonstrated their own defensive qualities as they repeatedly repelled Les Corbeaux’s crosses, although they did have goalkeeper Toni to thank for saving two penalties.
Bua netted the winner as they beat a sub-par Esperance side in the first leg, but the Tunisians have another gear or two and, if they rediscover the form they showed earlier in the campaign, have the quality to reach the final.
Ahly won’t fear either side, having already taken four points from the Tunisians—including an away win in Rades—during their group campaign.