DUBAI: The only thing that can be said with certainty as Africa looks forward to its Champions League final is that the trophy will be won by an Arab team.
But, then, it usually is, as Al-Ahly of Egypt and Wydad AC of Morocco, who meet in Sunday’s first leg in Cairo, know better than most.
This will mark the third time in seven editions that these two giants of African and Arab football have met with the trophy sitting on the sidelines. They also locked horns in the semifinal of the 2020 edition when the Egyptians ran out comfortable winners.
There have been 16 Arab champions in the last 25 years, and in that time there was only 2009 when none from the region reached the final. Instead, TP Mazembe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, defeated Nigeria’s Heartland.
We are in familiar territory for the two finalists, but the situation has changed since last year when Wydad ran out 2-0 winners in a single game on home soil. To start with, this is a home-and-away affair, with Egypt hosting on Sunday and the action moving to Morocco a week later.
Al-Ahly, who already hold the record for continental titles, with 10 trophies in the bank, are in a better place than they were in May last year. Then, in the dying days of the Pitso Mosimane regime, the Red Giants reached the final, but were struggling to cope with the demands of competing in the league, Africa and also the Club World Cup. Ahead of the last final, the league was slipping away and criticism was increasing.
This time, however, Al-Ahly also have lots of games in hand — they have played five games fewer than Pyramids in second — but are still a point clear. Their league record has been amazing, with 19 wins, five draws and no defeats in the 24 games so far.
Under Swiss boss Marcel Koller, who replaced Mosimane’s short-lived successor Ricardo Soares in September, the Egyptians have been a winning machine. The league is almost in the bag. Adding the Champions League really will make it a perfect season.
The early stages of the African journey were rough and they only made it through in second, four points behind Mamelodi Sundowns, and ahead of Al-Hilal of Sudan only due to a better head-to-head record.
The knockout stages have been more comfortable, however. Raja CA, Wydad’s Casablanca neighbors, were defeated 2-0 over two legs in the quarterfinals, while Esperance de Tunis were beaten 4-0. Take away the seven goals conceded in the group stage in two games against Mamelodi, then Al-Ahly have conceded just eight times in 32 league and Champions League games this season. The size of Wydad’s task is there for all to see.
Even after the 1-0 league win over Ceramica Cleopatra on Monday, Koller was still demanding more.
“After scoring, we lost our concentration and neglected defense, and we could have been punished since they got several chances to even the score,” the Swiss boss said. “I am saying it clearly: We need more determination and concentration in the Wydad game. If we repeat the same performance against Ceramica, we will not achieve our target.”
There is a boost for the club, which had been sweating on the fitness of all four goalkeepers, but first choice Mohamed El-Shenawy has recovered from a calf injury.
Al-Ahly may be glad that Wydad squeezed past Mamelodi on away goals in the semifinals, as the South Africans were impressive in the group stages. It also gives a chance for revenge for last year.
Wydad are going for a second successive championship and a fourth in total. That win in May started a great few months for Moroccan football. Not long after Walid Regragui led Wydad to the title, he left to take over the national team. It barely needs to be said again, but at the World Cup he took the Atlas Lions to the last four. Left-back Yahia Attiyah Allah and Yahya Jabrane both played their part in that magical run to the semifinals and will be in action against Al-Ahly.
After winning their group, they eliminated Tanzania’s Simba on penalties and then needed away goals to get past Mamelodi. With four games of the league season remaining, they are fighting for the title with FAR Rabat and are currently just a point behind.
There have been plenty of changes on the sidelines, with three successors to Regragui before Sven Vandenbroeck took over in May. The Belgian, who has extensive experience in Africa, was last seen in charge of Abha in Saudi Arabia, but now has the opportunity to be the first from his country to win the biggest club prize in African club football.
“I don’t feel a huge pressure. It is logical to play for all titles when you take the charge of a team that has a long history of winning trophies,” Vandenbroeck said. “Ahly will be seeking revenge for the last time. So, the most important thing for me is to remain calm and unified as a group.”
After Regragui, Vandenbroeck has big shoes to fill, but there are also unrelenting demands on Al-Ahly to keep winning. It is all set for a fascinating encounter.