Walid Soliman converted two penalties to help Egyptian giants Al Ahly to defeat Tunisia’s Esperance 3-1 in a highly-charged first leg of the African Champions League final on Friday.
The two penalties were awarded after the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was consulted as the technology was used for the first time in the competition’s history.
Midfielder Amr El-Sulaya was also on target as the Red Devils secured a convincing first-leg advantage in Alexandria before a sell-out crowd at Borg El-Arab Stadium, but Algerian referee Mehdi Abid Charef will probably steal headlines after consulting the VAR in two of the three penalties he awarded.
Esperance’s only goal also came via a penalty from Youcef Belaili, albeit without VAR assistance, as the visitors briefly narrowed the gap in the second half before Soliman netted his second of the night with 13 minutes remaining.
Charef appeared to contradict the view of the VAR on both occasions.
He instantly awarded a penalty after Moroccan striker Walid Azaro fell under an apparent challenge from Esperance keeper Moez Ben Cherifia on the half-hour mark although television replays suggested there was a minimal contact.
Charef was called by the VAR to check a replay but he stuck to his earlier decision, with Soliman converting from the spot to break the deadlock.
He appeared firm in giving Esperance a second-half spot kick but was called to check the VAR again in the last penalty he awarded to Ahly on 77 minutes as Azaro fell again after tangling with a defender for a long ball.
Esperance will need to score two goals without reply if they are to win a third continental title. Ahly will be favourites to secure a record-extending ninth crown when the second leg takes place next week in Rades.
A scrappy first half was littered with too many mis-placed passes and lengthy stoppages, with some flying challenges at either end ruining the flow of the game.
A half-chance fell to Esperance Yassine Khenissi on 22 minutes but he shot tamely at keeper Mohamed El-Shennawi before the game burst into life eight minutes later after the referee pointed to the spot.
Azaro looked to have theatrically tumbled to the ground as he tried to skip past Moez Ben Cherifia following a defence-splitting pass from Soliman, who stepped up to powerfully fire home and send the home fans into raptures on 34 minutes.
Esperance almost equalized on the stroke of halftime but a fierce right-foot drive from Ghaylene Chaalali rattled the bar, with Youcef Belaili’s follow-up effort tipped over by El-Shennawi.
But Ahly went 2-0 up 13 minutes into the second half after a dreadful defensive blunder, with two centre backs failing to deal with a tame cross from Soliman to leave El-Sulaya with the simple task of drilling home from close range.
The match remained a purely physical battle, with both sides struggling to string passes together in a match resembling a Rugby affair.
Esperance hauled themselves back into the game in the 64th minute though, with Belaili earning a penalty after El-Shennawi clattered into him as he chased a floated ball in the area. El-Shennawi dived the right way but could not stop the ball from going into the bottom corner.
Ahly restored their two-goal cushion in the 77th minute, thanks to an unstoppable penalty from Soliman as Charef infuriated the visitors once again by signaling for a penalty and upholding his decision after consulting the VAR.
Both sides could have scored in an exciting finale,