Referee, VAR in spotlight as Al Ahly win Champions League final first leg

Al Ahly's Amr Al Solya celebrates scoring the second goal against Esperance in what proved to be a 3-1 win in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final. EPA/Mohamed Hossam

Al Ahly have claimed the advantage after the first leg of the 2018 African Champions League final with a controversial 3-1 victory over Tunisian side Esperance at the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria on Friday.

Algerian referee Mehdi Abid Charef awarded three penalties in the game, two to the home side and despite consulting the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), both appeared generous for Ahly.

Walid Soliman netted both spot-kicks and Amr Al Sulaya scored the other goal as eight-time winners Ahly seized control of the tie ahead of next Friday's return fixture in Rades.

Esperance do have a lifeline though through Algerian winger Youcef Belaili, who converted a penalty to give them something to play for in the second leg.

The home side were in front when Ahmed Hamoudi's pass to Walid Azaro was perfect to get the striker behind the defence and the latter went down in a tangle with Esperance goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia.

Charef awarded the spot-kick and then took some time to review the incident via the VAR before confirming his decision, despite what appeared minimal contact.

Soliman's penalty was hit with precision and power into the top corner.

Ben Cherifia showed excellent reflexes to keep out a flick from Azaro, while Esperance midfielder Ghilane Chalali crashed a 30-yard shot against the crossbar in the dying minutes of the first half.

The home side doubled the lead just before the hour-mark through Al Sulaya, though there was a touch of good fortune about the goal.

The Ahly midfielder could not control a cross from the right, but as the ball bounced off Esperance defender Chamseddine Dhaouadi, it fell kindly for Al Sulaya to score from six-yards.

The visitors were handed the opportunity to halve the deficit when they were awarded a penalty as Ahly goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy raced off his line and crashed into on-rushing Esperance forward Belaili.

Algerian Belaili took the spot-kick himself and drilled the ball low into the bottom corner.

Charef then awarded a third penalty with 15 minutes remaining, again consulting the VAR as Azaro went down in the box in an off-the-ball incident.

Despite replays suggesting there was again little in it, he upheld his decision and Soliman converted.

The last side to come back from a first leg deficit and lift the trophy was TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009 when they trailed 2-1 to Heartland of Nigeria from the away leg, before winning 1-0 at home to take the tie on the away goals rule.

Ahly have won a record eight Champions League titles, but are seeking to lift the title for the first time in five years after losing to Wydad Casablanca from Morocco in last year's final.

Esperance were winners in 1994 and 2011 and lost 3-2 on aggregate to Ahly in the 2012 decider.