Friday, October 31, 2008

African Final Preview: Al Ahly-Coton Sport


Tomorrow's first leg of the African Champions League final is a classic case of David v. Goliath.

On one side, we have the expertise and experience of Egypt's Al Ahly, who are chasing a record-breaking sixth Champions League title and playing in their fourth successive final.

On the other, we have Cameroon's Coton Sport, who didn't even exist when Ahly were just beginning to win titles.

Coton reached the league phase for the first time this year and have gone on, against all expectation, to advance to their first final.

The club was only founded in 1986, and ascended into the top flight of Cameroonian football in 1993. By that time Al Ahly had already won one continental championship and three straight African Cup Winners' Cups.

Rarely has there been such a gulf in experience between two teams contesting the final of the continent's showpiece club competition, but it is not an unrealistic mismatch. Indeed Al Ahly's hopes of establishing new landmarks for the African game will be under severe threat from a Cameroonian side who have grown in confidence and ability as the competition has unfolded over the year.

Al Ahly stumbled at this block last year against a team they were heavily favored against.

Considered certainties to overtake fellow five-time winners Zamalek of Egypt after forcing a 0-0 first-leg draw at Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia last year, Ahly came horribly unstuck at home to lose the second leg 3-1.

Angry home supporters then vented their fury by hurling missiles and abuse at the Ahly players when they collected their runners-up medals.

But a year later Ahly are back in the showpiece of African club football against opponents no one outside the dusty north Cameroon cotton town of Garoua gave a chance of going so far.

Al Ahly host Sunday's first leg in Cairo seeking a decisive advantage to take to Garoua, in the arid north of Cameroon, where the second leg is to be staged on November 16. But coach Manuel Jose says it is ironic that his team fare better away from home, freed from the burden of expectation imposed by their passionate fans in the Egyptian capital.



The Portuguese, who has been at the Al Ahly helm for their last three Champions League triumphs, said on the eve of the game: "Away from home, when we are not under pressure, we perform well. But at home there is a lot of pressure from the supporters."

Al Ahly know it is vital to win the first leg and take an advantage to Garoua, where they have never played before and will find conditions to be tough.

"Ahly have the best footballers in Africa so we should go for a win whenever and wherever we play," continued their coach. The Egyptians are still sweating over the availability of captain Ahmed Hassan and Angolan winger Gilberto, who sat out their last league game to avoid aggravating a groin problem.

Here's where another disparity exists between the two sides.

Ahly supplied five Egyptians and two Angolans for the 2008 African Cup of Nations while no Coton Sport footballer made it to Ghana.

Ahly superstars like silky midfielders Mohamed Aboutraika and Mohamed Barakat and Angola-born goal predator Flavio Amado are instantly recognizable far from their Cairo base.

But no one outside Cameroon and his native Niger knew of Daouda Kamilou until his seven-goal haul in the Champions League this year lifted a veil of international obscurity.

Coton Sport Franco-Ivorian coach Alain Guedou is upbeat about his team’s chances.

“We have the keys to success. We will fight as much as we can to win the title, but I believe we are not far from achieving our objective,” he said.

But there is no shortage of confidence in the Coton Sport side. Baba Ousmaila , who was Man of the Match as the team warmed up for the final by beating Aigle Dschang 4-2 in the Cameroon Cup Final at the weekend, says the players are ready to make history.

“The victory over Aigle was important, but it is now in the past for us,” Baba told the club’s official website.

“All the players can think of now is the Champions League final.

“We know Al Ahly are a very big club and a very good team, but now Coton Sport’s time has begun. This is the moment we will gain our first Champions League trophy, we all firmly believe that.”

After a rather slow start in the group phase of this year’s competition, they stepped up their challenge with their home ground, the 35,000-capacity Stade Omnisports Roumde-Adja, proving to be a fortress. It was there that Enyimba and Power Dynamos met their Waterloo.

Coton Sport have already made history as the first club from that country to reach this stage of the competition since 1980 when the famous Canon Yaoundé won the last of their three titles.

They made easy work of Power Dynamos in the semi-finals by winning 5-0 on aggregate. After snatching a lone goal victory in Harare, they showed they were truly at home by spanking the Glamour Boys of Zimbabwe 4-0 in the second leg.




Coton Sport have dominated the Cameroonian scene since 1997.

They owe their rise to the top of the African football pile within such a short time to solid funding and organization.

Founded in 1986, they reached the final of the now redesigned CAF Cup in 2001 and have posted eight appearances in the Champions League with their best outing coming in 2004 when they got to the third round of the elimination series.

They have won the Cameroonian league nine times and were consecutive winners the past five years. They have also lifted the FA Cup four times in the last five years, winning their latest just this past weekend.

Besides parading several Cameroonian players, they also have on their books players from Niger including first-choice goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda and 20-year-old striker Kamilou Daouda. Kamilou is the team’s leading scorer in the Champions League and both he and his compatriot are already top transfer targets with the goalkeeper reportedly on his way to Turkey.

Besides that, they have a very special supporter in Cairo for their game, none other than Indomitable Lions legend Roger Milla.

Milla won worldwide acclaim back at the 1990 World Cup in Italy when he led Cameroon to the quarterfinals, scoring four goals along the way, before returning in 1994 as a 42-year-old for a less successful tournament in the USA.

His appearances in the United States World Cup made him the oldest man to feature at a World Cup finals.

So what happens now? Let's find out and see! Should be a good one no matter what.



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