5 talking points ahead of African Champions League final between Al-Ahly, Wydad Casablanca
RIYADH: Forget Real Madrid’s win over Liverpool for now, on Monday night Africa takes center stage as the CAF Champions League final sees defending champions Al-Ahly of Egypt face Morocco’s Wydad AC in Casablanca. Here are five talking points ahead of the big game.
1. Al-Ahly channeling Real Madrid
Al-Ahly are by far the most successful team in the competition’s history with an impressive 10 titles. There is something that the Egyptians have not managed however: To lift the trophy three years in a row. Even the all-conquering team of the first decade of the 21st century never did that.
It really would be a special feat, but it will be far from easy. The game is taking place at the Casablanca home of their opponents, and it is going to be a hostile atmosphere.
Yet the Red Giants have a special pedigree in this competition and are able to pull something out of the bag when it matters. There were struggles in the group stage with back-to-back defeats against Mamelodi Sundowns that had the team on the brink of elimination, but everyone knew that Al-Ahly would bounce back and that is exactly what happened.
The team from Cairo are similar to Real Madrid. They believe that, in their continental competition, they will find a way to win in the end.
2. Mbenza could give Wydad fans perfect goodbye gift
Guy Mbenza is one of the brightest prospects in African football and the 22-year-old is the leading scorer in the Moroccan league. He has also netted three times in the Champions League and has the ability to decide the game, though with Wydad the top scorers in this year’s competition with 20 goals, there are other threats.
On loan from Belgium’s Royal Antwerp, the Congolese star is unlikely to be in Casablanca for much longer and it could well be that shining on this big stage will pave the way for a move to a bigger European league.
There is plenty of motivation then for the Brazzaville native, who scored in the semi-final win over Petro de Luanda, to put Al-Ahly to the sword.
Fans in Casablanca are not going to be able to enjoy the sight of the youngster in action for too long but leaving after helping to deliver the Champions League trophy will help lessen the sorrow of goodbye.
3. Al-Ahly’s injury issues clearing up but there are domestic struggles
There is some good news for the holders in the fact that their midfield trio of Amr El-Sulya, Hamdi Fathy, and Aliou Dieng have all been passed fit for the big game. The three players missed last week’s Egyptian league clash at ENPPI but will be ready to take on Wydad.
Unlike the Moroccans, who are sitting pretty at the top of their league, Al-Ahly are now in catch-up mode at home. Similar to last year when their continental and global commitments meant that they fell too far behind Zamalek and had to concede the title, the Reds have won just one of their last five games to slip into third in the league and are now seven points behind the leaders. They may have four games in hand over their Cairo rivals, but Al-Ahly know that points on the board are what matters.
This is an issue for after the final, but the sacrifice on the home front feels a lot easier when there is a continental trophy.
4. Other history can be made
Wydad may not have quite the prestigious record in this competition as Al-Ahly – no team does – but they are going for a third continental title, and this is the third final in the space of five years.
If they can win on Monday, they will join Raja Casablanca as the most successful Moroccan team in the history of the competition.
After the 4-2 win over Petro de Luanda in the semi-finals, Wydad returned to domestic duties and approach the final in the knowledge that they have a four-point cushion at the top of the domestic league.
And then there is Pitso Mosimane. The Al-Ahly coach could become the first tactician to win three African titles in a row and the second ever to win four (club legend Manuel Jose is the other).
Mosimane said that he can be compared to Jose after five years, not now. He is wrong. Another trophy would make the South African, who also led Mamelodi Sundowns to the 2016 championship, one of the most successful managers in the world game.
5. Stadium is an issue
The decision by the Confederation of African Football to give the final to the home stadium of Wydad in between the first and second leg of the semi-finals, when it looked odds-on that the Moroccans and the Egyptians would win through, was a controversial one.
If the home team end up winning, it is sure to be a point of contention for Al-Ahly. The Red Giants are hoping that the pressure and expectations from the home fans will create a burden for Wydad but there is no doubt that they would prefer a home and away situation or, at least, a neutral venue. They will receive 10,000 tickets but it remains to be seen how many of their fans make the trip.
Al-Ahly chief executive officer, Amr Shaheen, told the BBC: “The decision to play one single match instead of two legs was wrong in the first place. Africa is different to Europe – we do not have open borders, free circulation, same currency, or common laws.
“The vast majority of African fans cannot fly to attend matches, enjoy a meal, and tour the city they are flying to on the same day, have access to the game and return back to their office desk the next morning to tell their colleagues about the wonderful experience they had.”
Lessons need to be learned for the future. The final venue needs to be announced much earlier in the competition or it should be a two-legged affair.