–Places team’s chances at 50-50
They came from all over the city. One group had vuvuzelas, another, traditional drums, and as if to climax it, the brass band of the Armed Forces of Liberia was also present.
When the Chief Patron of Sports, President George Manneh Weah, entered the Antoinette Tubman Stadium on Sunday and ordered the gates free, many fans rushed to take their place around the field. Also at the stadium were GSA Director General Mary Broh and Youth & Sports Minister D. Zoegar Wilson.
As the AFL brass band offered a series of renditions, many people danced; a young woman with a vuvuzela could not have enough. It was reminiscent of the days when the Chief Patron himself was still active in the game.
So when the home team, LISCR FC, began their exchanges with their Sudanese counterpart Al-Hilal Omdurman at 4 p.m to determine the winner in their first leg 2018 CAF Championship League, the fans roared in anticipation.
LISCR FC’s coach Tapha Manneh, took his regular position, likewise his counterpart, the Brazilian coach of the Sudanese team, Sergio Farias, when two-time runners up, Al-Hilal, took the kickoff and launched into a series of well-planned coordination that showed how organized they were from the midfield.
The visitors were at home when the ball was on the air. There were taller and bigger than their Liberian opponents, and as the Liberian side followed their lead and kept the ball in the air, the Sudanese had all the balls to their advantage.
By the 10th minute, the Liberians had realized that they were not well-coordinated, but that ball possession, close distribution and making use of individual skills, could make the difference.
Hence in a split combination three minutes later, passes from the midfield, engineered by Sheku Sheriff, Bully Drammeh, Amadia Kawah, Mustapha Njie, and Mark Paye, forced Al-Hilal’s defense, pivoting around Atahar al Taher, and supported by Wataar Dibala and Abdullatif Saeed on the retreat, to cause an infringement out the 18 yard box for the home team to earn a free-kick.
Sheku Sheriff elected himself to take the kick. Until then the Al-Hilal goalkeeper, Loik Maxim, had proven a remarkable support in the defense, and was seen very often directing his players up front.
The Al-Hilal defense built a wall under the instruction of goalkeeper Maxim, and with all set, the referee instructed Sheriff to get the job done.
The stadium was tense and many wondered what Sheriff would do with such a set-piece, one of the methods that creative players can use to their advantage. As the stadium waited for Sheriff to executive the set-piece, those who had followed his soccer career consider him as someone who is dependable, as far as executing such a set-piece was concerned.
As Sheku Sherriff struck the ball, curling into the roof of the net, Al-Hilal’s goalkeeper, Loik Maxim, flew in the same direction, but was too late to prevent it from entering into the net, which was greeted with roars of appreciation, with the brass band, the vuvuzelas, and drums echoed amid the deafening cheers of ‘goal!’ from the large crowd.
Stunned Al-Hilal players could not believe what had happened and were quick to take the ball to the center to resume the game. With such an early goal, many people said the results could be higher for the visitors.
However, they resumed the session and took over the midfield but could not translate their midfield superiority into goals because LISCR FC’s defense around captain Tommy Songo, who saved at least three sticky situations, Kemoh Kamara, Emmanuel Tarpeh and Asaimuh Dahn were unyielding.
In fact, when the team resumed the second half and the exchanges increased with Al-Hilal still dictating the pace of the game from the midfield, the Liberians would steal the moment and forced the visitors to their defense, but poor finishing robbed them of additional goals.
LISCR FC’s Mark Paye almost wept when he shot wide a pass from Sheku Sheriff in the latter part of the second half.
Both teams wasted three corner-kicks each in the match. In fact, what was also confusing for most of the players was the identical jerseys worn by both teams. LISCR FC had on white shorts and blue tops and Al-Hilal had on white tops and blue buttoms; and though both teams agreed to proceed with the game, this brought confusion as balls intended for teammates went to the wrong side.
With LISCR’s 1-0 victory, the team will return to Omdurman, Sudan for the second leg with both teams at an equal advantage to win or qualify for the next round of the tournament.
Playing at home, Al-Hilal, two-time runners up of the same competition, could prove more adventurous than their Liberian counterparts since they proved it in the first leg. Though LISCR players told journalists after the game that they would travel to Sudan to defend their victory, coach Manneh will have to work on the players’ poor finishing and coordination of the team’s defense.
Meanwhile, Entente Setif, the other title contenders from Algeria, fared much better as they hammered hapless Olympic Real Bangui of the Central African Republic 6-0 in North Africa.
Zakaria Haddouche scored a hat-trick and Akram Djahnit bagged a brace for the club who were crowned African champions in 1988 and 2014.
While the Algerian “Black Eagles” are virtually assured of a last-32 place, who they would face next is not obvious.
Al Tahaddy of Libya, who cannot host matches in Benghazi because of ongoing post-Qaddafi era violence, built a 1-0 lead over Aduana Stars of Ghana in Cairo.
Mahmoud Ali scored the only goal just past the half-hour as Tahaddy seek to make an impact 40 years after last appearing in the premier African club competition.
Al Merrikh, the arch domestic rival of Hilal, crashed 3-0 away to modest Township Rollers of Botswana in Gaborone on Saturday.