Zniti saves penalty to boost Raja hopes of dethroning Ahly

·3 min read
Veteran Raja Casablanca goalkeeper Anas Zniti saved a penalty during a 2-1 loss to Al Ahly (AFP/KARIM JAAFAR) (KARIM JAAFAR)

Raja Casablanca goalkeeper Anas Zniti saved a penalty in Egypt to boost the chances of the Moroccan club dethroning CAF Champions League holders Al Ahly, despite a 2-1 loss in their quarter-final first leg.

Reduced to 10 men in Cairo before the spot-kick after Marouane Hadhoudi was sent off for handling to prevent a certain goal, Raja were in danger of falling two goals behind on the hour mark.

Amr el Soulia had put Ahly ahead from a 13th-minute penalty that evaded the outstretched right hand of Zniti and landed in the corner of the net.

The Egyptian decided to aim for the same corner from the second spot-kick, but this time Zniti pushed the ball away.

As Ahly intensified pressure in the final 30 minutes, but a combination of saves by Zniti, brave defending and wild shooting foiled the hosts.

Hussein el Shahat was the other Ahly scorer, finishing off a superb low cross from South African Percy Tau on 23 minutes at a 40,000-seat Al Salam Stadium that was half full due to coronavirus protocols.

Dominant Ahly, who should have been more than two goals ahead as half-time loomed, were stung in first-half added time when Mohamed Zrida halved the deficit with a low shot off a cut-back.

It leaves the pick of the quarter-finals in the marquee African club competition delicately balanced ahead of the return match in Casablanca, which will kick off late on Friday.

Footballers are permitted to break the dawn-to-dusk fast during the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but most prefer not to.

- Elusive title treble -

Instead, they eat and drink after dusk and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has agreed to extend the 1900 GMT kick-off deadline, with some matches beginning close to midnight local time.

Record 10-time African champions Ahly hope to become the first club to win the competition three consecutive times -- a feat that has eluded them and three other sides.

Ahly (2007 and 2014) and Tout Puissant Mazembe (1969 and 2011) from the Democratic Republic of Congo failed twice.

Nigerian side Enyimba (2005) and Esperance (2020) of Tunisia were other back-to-back winners of the Champions League who could not complete a treble.

The winners between Ahly and Raja will book a two-leg semi-final against Esperance or Entente Setif of Algeria, who were held 0-0 at home in a first leg where the visitors created more chances.

Chabab Belouizdad, the other Algerian contenders for a 2.5 million dollar (2.3 mn euros) first prize, fared even worse than Setif, losing 1-0 at home to two-time champions Wydad Casablanca in Algiers.

The Moroccans had to play 83 minutes a man short after VAR changed a yellow card given to Jalal Daoudi for a foul to a red one.

But a headed goal by Congo Brazzaville international Guy Mbenza, sporting a pink hair style, 19 seconds into the second half decided a match controlled by Belouizdad without creating many clear-cut chances.

Needing a draw in Casablanca next weekend to qualify, Wydad appear set to reach the last-four stage for the sixth time in seven seasons, and face Petro Luanda of Angola or Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa.

Petro came from behind to win the first leg 2-1 in Luanda with Brazilian Tiago Azulao cancelling out an early Lyle Lakay goal, then setting up the late first-half winner for Yano Duarte.

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