Goalkeeping problems have cost the men from Egypt

Mighty Al Ahly of Egypt are on the verge of elimination from the 2016 Caf Champions League competition most African football pundits expected them to win.

They have been crowned champions a record eight times and looked the pick of the eight qualifiers for the group phase that began last month.

But defeats away to Zesco United of Zambia and at home to ASEC Mimosas of the Ivory Coast have Ahly bottom of the Group A standings without a point.

On the last occasion when the Cairo Red Devils lost their opening two mini-league matches, they failed to make the 2002 semi-finals.

To reverse that trend, an Ahly squad coached by former Tottenham Hotspur manager Martin Jol will probably need to win at least three of their remaining four fixtures.

And two of those assignments are away, against ASEC in Abidjan and group leaders Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in Rabat.

Former champions Wydad have six points after two rounds, ASEC and Zesco three each and Ahly none.

For all their success in Africa - Ahly have won 19 Caf titles - they are poor travellers with only eight away victories in 37 group matches.

But they have often salvaged draws on foreign fields, then won at home to either advance on aggregate in qualifiers or secure sufficient group points to reach the semi-finals.

A pillar on which the successes of Ahly have been built since their first African title 34 years ago has been outstanding goalkeepers behind hard-to-penetrate defences.

Ekramy El Shahat and Thabet El Batel were outstanding shot-stoppers when the Ahly African success story began three decades ago.

Then came Ahmed Shoubeir, and Essam Al Hadary was a pivotal figure in the 2005-2008 Ahly squad - the most successful African club side of the modern era.

But it is experienced current Ahly goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy, a son of El Shahat, who bears much of the responsibility for the predicament his club find themselves in.

Far from impressive in the 3-2 defeat by Zesco at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola, Ekramy gifted the winning goal as ASEC triumphed 2-1 in Alexandria.

AT A GLANCE
Al Ahly

Formed: 1907
Nickname: Cairo Red Devils
Captain: Hossam Ghaly (midfielder)
Coach: Martin Jol (NED)

Caf titles
  • Champions League 8 (1982, 1987, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2013)
  • Confederation Cup 1 (2014)
  • African Cup Winners Cup 4 (1984, 1985, 1986, 1993)
  • Super Cup 6 (2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2014)

  • Egyptian titles
  • Premier League 38
  • FA Cup 35 (including two shared with Zamalek)
  • Super Cup 9
  • He fumbled a harmless header and an Ivorian pounced on the loose ball to score the 80th-minute goal that has dealt the Champions League ambitions of the Red Devils a major blow.

    To his credit, 60-year-old Hollander Jol usually reserves criticism of individual players for places far from the eyes and ears of the media.

    But he could not camouflage his disappointment after Ekramy opted to play Santa Claus six months ahead of schedule.

    "Ekramy did not fulfil his role in this game," he told reporters. "ASEC scored from their only two shots on target during the match. It is difficult to accept losing this way."

    Jol refuses to blame Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when eating and drinking is forbidden between dawn and dusk, for the Caf setbacks.

    Like other north African clubs, Ahly have hosted matches late at night to enable footballers to eat and drink and restore energy.

    Disadvantages for Ahly are having to play in Alexandria - 200 kilometres north of Cairo - in front of crowds limited to 15,000 owing to post-Arab Spring security concerns.

    "All the travelling to Alexandria tires the players and playing in front of small crowds or behind closed doors is painful," conceded Jol.



    Defending Confed Cup champs not the team of 2015

    Those who watched Etoile Sahel win the 2015 Caf Confederation Cup so impressively must be puzzled at the feeble efforts of the Tunisian club to successfully defend the trophy.

    Etoile won the second-tier African club competition for the second time last year by edging Orlando Pirates of South Africa 2-1 on aggregate.

    The Tunisians snatched a late 1-1 draw in Soweto, then won an equally tight return match 1-0 in Mediterranean resort Sousse.

    A capacity 25,000 crowd celebrated a ninth African title for Etoile while Pirates had to deal with the disappointment of a second Caf final loss within three years.

    Good and gallant though the Soweto Buccaneers were in both legs, Etoile emerged worthy winners under veteran coach Faouzi Benzarti.

    The only club to win all five past and present Caf competitions were solid at the back, terrier-like in midfield and opportunist when chances were created.

    That every Etoile player posed a threat was borne out by a central defender, Ammar Jemal, scoring both goals for Etoile in the decider.

    Jemal and many of those who sank the Pirates started this season in the Caf Champions League, but it was not too long before they were back in the Confederation Cup.

    After comfortably overcoming Olympique Khouribga of Morocco in the Champions League, they were eliminated by Enyimba of Nigeria in the final qualifying round after a penalty shootout.

    That loss meant demotion to the Confederation Cup along with seven other clubs, including five-time African champions TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Football pundits did not hesitate to select Etoile and Mazembe - both winners of nine Caf titles - as co-favourites to raise the Confederation Cup this year.

    But while Mazembe are moving up the gears after a hesitant start, Etoile are stuttering along in first and in danger of not even making the semi-finals.

    AT A GLANCE
    Etoile Sahel

    Formed: 1925
    Ground: Stade Olympique, Sousse, Tunisia (capacity: 25,000)
    Nickname: Red Devils
    Captain: Ammar Jamel (centre-back)
    Coach: Faouzi Benzarti

    Caf titles
  • Champions League 1 (2007)
  • Confederation Cup 2 (2006, 2015)
  • African Cup Winners Cup 2 (1997, 2003)
  • Caf Cup 2 (1995, 1999)
  • Super Cup 2 (1998, 2008)
  • Premier League 10
  • FA Cup 10
  • League Cup 1
  • Super Cup 3
  • Mazembe top Group A thanks to a maximum six points, while Etoile lie third in Group B with only one point from a possible six.

    Away to first-time group qualifiers Kawkab Marrakech of Morocco on matchday 1, Etoile scored first through Hamza Lahmar, then imploded.

    Ghazi Abderrazak, after a second yellow, and Iheb Msakni were red-carded within three minutes and Kawkab took advantage to grab a 2-1 win.

    FUS Rabat of Morocco, shock 2010 Confederation Cup winners, visited Sousse on matchday 2 and Etoile made a dream start with an Ahmed Akaichi goal inside three minutes. But instead of capitalising on taking the lead, Etoile gradually surrendered the initiative and FUS scored midway through the second half to earn a 1-1 draw.

    Kawkab have six points after two rounds, FUS four, Etoile one and Al Ahly Tripoli of Libya are pointless following narrow losses to the two Moroccan clubs.

    This month, Kawkab and FUS face each other twice, leaving Etoile to meet Ahly and needing two victories to have a realistic chance of making the semi-finals.

    An advantage for the Tunisians is that the " away" match against Ahly could also be staged in Tunisia as Caf do not permit Libya to host fixtures owing to militia lawlessness.

    Ahly, another club demoted from the Champions League, have used a Tunis stadium for their last four home fixtures, but could move to another country given that they are facing Tunisian opposition.

    Wherever the match is staged, Etoile need to win if they hope to emulate compatriots CS Sfaxien and become only the second club to win back-to-back Confederation Cup titles.