Surprise package Al-Ittihad of Libya outclassed African Champions League Group A winners Etoile Sahel of Tunisia 2-0 this weekend to join them in the semifinals.
Needing maximum points to be certain of becoming the first Libyan qualifiers for the penultimate phase of the 11-year competition, Ittihad triumphed via goals from regular marksmen Younis al-Shibani and Salem al-Raweni.
Central defender Al-Shibani headed Ittihad in front off a 13th-minute corner amid wild celebrations among a near-capacity crowd at the 65000-seat June 11 Stadium in the Libyan capital.
And Al-Raweni claimed his seventh Champions League goal this year by calmly slotting a 58th-minute penalty into the net as stand-in Etoile goalkeeper Nadim Thabet dived the wrong way.
Ittihad toyed with under-strength Etoile in the closing stages and when the Togolese referee blew for full-time, fireworks lit the night sky over the Mediterranean city.
Few Libyan football supporters could have imagined three months ago that such an occasion would arise as twice runners-up Etoile and former champions JS Kabylie of Algeria and FAR Rabat of Morocco were considered stronger sides.
But a skilful, workmanlike Ittihad team coached by Serb Branko Smiljanic began with a 1-0 home win over Kabylie followed by a shock 0-0 draw at Etoile and retained second place throughout the six-round series.
Etoile finished with 11 points, Ittihad 10, Kabylie seven and FAR five while Al-Hilal of Sudan and titleholders Al-Ahly of Egypt or Asec Mimosas of Ivory Coast will advance to the semifinals from the other mini-league.
Stung by two consecutive losses, star-studded Ahly hosted Asec in Cairo late last night needing a point to stay on course for a record third consecutive Champions League title.
Despite promises from French coach Bertrand Marchand that Etoile would not rest key players, goalkeeper Aymen Methlouthi and strikers Amine Chermiti and Gilson "Ja" Silva were notable absentees in Tripoli.
Ittihad opted for aerial bombardment by starting with giant Guinean striker Alseny Camara and he went close twice before Al-Shibani dashed in to head a weak clearance past Thabet.
Etoile were struggling to contain Camara and defender Mejdi Ben Mohamed retired injured midway through the opening half while trying to contain the west African.
The decisive second goal came after Camara was fouled and the weary Guinean limped off to thunderous applause when replaced by Arafa Nakua with 18 minutes left.
FAR and Kayblie drew 1-1 at the same time in Rabat with Mounir Benkassou converting a 22nd-minute penalty for the Moroccan club and Mohamed Derrag snatching an 85th-minute equaliser. - Sapa-AFP