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Who can stop Al Ahli?

By Mark Gleeson
March 25, 2009

 There was a familiar feel to the African Champions League again last weekend as holders Al Ahli of Egypt made their entrée into this year’s competition.
 It was yet another rudimentary win for the Cairo club in their first game in defence of their title; a 3-0 triumph over Tanzanian opponents Young Africans achieved with several high profile stars rested and the minimum of fuss.
 Al Ahli had a bye in last month’s first round, along with several other leading contenders, but while many of the other top north African clubs struggled in their first games, the Egyptians again glided through.
 Al Ahli will travel to Dar-es-Salaam for the second leg of the tie on April 4, confident of again brushing aside the early preliminaries and making sure of their place in the lucrative league phase, which starts in July.

 Al Ahli have enjoyed an unprecedented dominance in African club competition. It used to be that the annual tournaments had an air of wild uncertainty but since Al Ahli have taken a grip on proceedings they have become a lot more predictable.
 It begs the question: Can Al Ahli be stopped again this year and, if so, who will do it?
 The Egyptian club have won the Champions League three out of the last four years, the only blemish being their unexpected defeat at home in the second leg of the 2007 final by Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel.
That result was a supposed signal of the end of the club’s current dynasty but subsequently proved no more than a temporary setback.
 Al Ahli went on to win the 2008 Champions League with consummate ease, in the process breaking all previous records and landmarks.
 Judging by last weekend’s results, many of the pretenders to Al Ahli’s crown look far from fearsome this year.
 It makes the Cairo side runaway favourites again, notably if their major challengers fall by the way side early on. Among them former winners JS Kabylie (Algeria), Club Africain (Tunisia) and Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces, who all face the embarrassing prospect of early elimination.
 Maybe there will be a strong west African challenge this year but Nigeria’s Enyimba are not in the field and Asante Kotoko of Ghana have sold too many quality players to overseas clubs of late to have the depth in their squad to keep up the momentum needed to go all the way to the winners’ podium in November.

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