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Champions Leagues reach decisive final stages: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Champions Leagues reach decisive final stages: This week in Middle East football

Al-Ahly fans are grateful for a healthy cushion heading into the final's second leg [Getty)

Date of publication: 7 November, 2018

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Al-Ahly Cairo hold a strong advantage over Esperance de Tunis heading into the final leg, while Persepolis will be hoping their Iranian fans will give them a boost.
While the European Champions League is still in its group stage, in Africa and Asia, the continental competitions are reaching boiling point with the finals' first legs already creating headlines.

On Friday night, Egyptian champions Al-Ahly Cairo hosted Tunisia's Esperance de Tunis at a packed Borg Al-Arab stadium in Alexandria. The match was the first in African football to be using the VAR system, which helps the officials make the most accurate calls based on video recordings of incidents.

Al-Ahly arrived as clear favourites and benefited from a seemingly weak performance by Algerian referee Mehdi Abid Charef.

The Egyptians were awarded a brace of controversial penalties, despite the VAR evidence, with the referee directly responsible for two of the hosts' goals.

Walid Soliman scored the first penalty after a light touch in the box between striker Walid Azaro and Tunisian goalie Ben Cherifia was deemed by Abid Charef to be a foul.

In the second half, Al-Ahly's quality prevailed and the Egyptians went up 2-0, after poor defensive play by Esperance's defence and a lethal finish from Air Solaya.


But just when it looked like Al-Ahly was sliding easily towards victory, the Tunisians got one back thanks to Yousef Belalli the Algerian, who scored a deserved penalty. 

Esperance continued to pressure Al-Ahly, looking to grab an equaliser - but then, in the 73rd minute came another bizarre decision from Abid Charef, who gave Al-Ahly another penalty, despite another exaggerated fall in the box by Walid Azaro. The Tunisians were furious with the referee.

Walid Soliman did not blink and converted the penalty to a goal and a 3-1 lead, which serves Al-Ahly well before the second leg in Radés next Friday.

Referee Mehdi Abid Charef was under huge pressure in this match, also due to the ever-present tension between Algerians and Egyptians in football, since the famous incidents in the 2010 World Cup qualifications that almost brought a diplomatic crisis upon the two countries.

With a horrific debut of VAR in African football, fans and footballers on the continent will be afraid such faults will only contribute to stressful games. But next time it might work better. That said, the African Confederation might think again before fielding an Algerian referee in another high-profile match in Egypt. 

Asia

On Saturday morning, Iran's Persepolis played against Kashima Antlers, in the first leg of the Asian Champions League in Kashima, Japan.

The scene at the Kashima Soccer Stadium was mesmerising, with the Japanese fans filling the stadium with red and white flags.



Despite the atmosphere, the first half for Branko Ivanković and his players was impressive. A solid defensive display, which held the hosts to only two shots towards Alireza Beiranvand's goal, had spread optimism among the Iranian team. Unfortunately for them, Kashima just waited for the right time to sting.

In the second half, the Japanese team accelerated their pace and caught the Persian defence unprepared. With only two shots on target, the two Brazilian players, Leo Silva and Serginho, scored after counter-attacks which could not be stopped by the pairing of Jalal Hosseini and Mohamed Ansari. Beiranvand remained helpless in goal.

The Japanese have built themselves a huge advantage, and Persepolis has a huge mountain to climb. Now, they'll count on the Azadi effect - 100,000 frenetic fans in the stands - that will push them on to at least getting one goal back. From there, it will be on the players' shoulders to make history and bring the Champions League cup to Iran. 

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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