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Egypt's Al Ahli on verge of extraordinary triumph

By Mark Gleeson

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Egyptian giants Al Ahli are on the brink of a record-breaking eighth African Champions League title on Sunday which, if they win, would be all the more remarkable by overcoming a year of turmoil.

The Cairo club have had to deal with the closing down of their domestic league, with being forced to play away from their home base and mostly without spectators. All this against the backdrop of the civil turmoil in Egypt.

Despite all this, they are strongly fancied to retain their crown -- and take a fifth Champions League in an eight-year span -- when they host Orlando Pirates of South Africa in the second leg of the final in Cairo (kick off 1600 GMT).

Ahli conceded a stoppage time goal at the end of the first leg in Soweto last Saturday to draw 1-1.

They will play in front of a sizeable crowd for the first time in this year's competition after Egyptian military officials granted permission for the match to be played in Cairo.

Major soccer matches had been banned in the capital since the overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi in June.

Ahli played all of their home group matches, plus the return leg of the semi-final, at the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, more than 400km from the capital, effectively exiled by security authorities in a bid to keep crowds away.

The absence of floodlights at the small venue meant matches had to be played in searing summer daylight temperatures but Ahli still topped their group.

HEGEMONY RE-ESTABLISHED

They did, however, lose 3-0 in a record home defeat to Pirates in the group phase in August, only to draw twice in South Africa since and re-establish their hegemony.

Ahli have played only nine matches since June, all in the Champions League, after Egypt's military canceled the league.

They have also had to contend with a coaching change, but inexperienced Mohamed Youssef has picked up where his predecessors left off.

Pirates, in only their second final in 18 years, have arguably been the best footballing side in the league phase, but have a low conversion rate from all the chances they create with their high tempo game.

They will play the second leg without key midfielder Andile Jali and flying fullback Happy Jele who have been among their outstanding performers. Both are suspended after being booked in the first leg.

(Editing by Ossian Shine; mark.gleeson@thomsonreuters.com +27828257807 Messaging mark.gleeson.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

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