Egypt’s Ahly are close to winning their record-extending 11th African Champions League title but defending champions Wydad of Morocco want to get their fourth.
Wydad host Ahly on Sunday 11 June in the second leg of Africa’s most prestigious football club tournament after the Egyptians won the first leg 2-1 in Cairo Stadium on Sunday night.
Percy Tau and Mahmoud Kahraba scored a goal in either half from a pair of Hussein Al-Shahat assists.
But Wydad bounced back with what could prove to be a crucial away goal after substitute Saideddin Bouhra scored with just four minutes left in regulation time following a beautifully executed give and take.
In the reverse fixture in Mohamed V Stadium, Ahly need only a tie of any kind to recapture the crown they lost to Wydad last year. Wydad need a 1-0 victory to retain their crown.
Wydad’s home advantage and the away goal pretty much cancel each other out. What remains could be a 50-50 thriller.
Ahly fans were obviously deflated and disappointed by the late goal in a tournament in which the away goals rule still stands. They were also furious over the decisions taken by Libyan referee Moataz Ibrahim. They had a penalty decision overruled by VAR on the half hour mark after Ali Maaloul’s free kick apparently bounced off a hand inside the box.
A minute later, Ahly players demanded a direct sending-off for Yehia Attiyat Allah, the last defender who denied Tau a chance to go through on goal after deliberately handling the ball, but the punishment was a simple yellow card.
Ibrahim looks like he can be put in the category of some continental referees seemingly wanting to be more royal than the king by refusing to give red cards and penalties in defiance of 50,000-strong supporters on home territory.
As for the timeline of the goals, the chronology is partly psychological. Had the score been tied 1-1, after which Ahly scored the winning goal with five minutes left, Ahly fans would have been rocking. If Wydad had been ahead 1-0, then Ahly scored twice in the last five minutes, Cairo Stadium would have erupted in pandemonium — even though the results are the same.
In any event, the final of finals, whatever the outcome, has already cemented the reputation of North African clubs which have dominated Africa’s premier interclub competition since the turn of the millennium, winning 16 of the last 23 editions of the tournament.
Ahly have been perennial Champions League contenders, returning to the final for the fourth consecutive time.
Wydad, three-time African champions, are poised to secure their fourth title in their sixth appearance in the tournament’s final.
The rivalry between the two clubs has become fierce. This year’s fixture is a rematch of last year’s, which Wydad won 2-0 in Morocco when the finals were just one match. The loss deprived the Egyptian red shirts from securing an unprecedented treble following their triumphs in 2020 and 2021.
Before Sunday’s match, in their previous 11 meetings, Ahly emerged victorious four times, while Wydad claimed victory three times. However, the Moroccans prevailed when it mattered most, securing two titles in 2017 and 2022 against the Red Devils.
Meanwhile, Wydad will be looking for inspiration from Morocco’s historic run at the World Cup last year in Qatar when they became the first Arab and African country to reach the semi-finals.
Sunday’s game was a huge test for rookie Ahly goalkeeper Mustafa Shobeir who suddenly found himself thrust onto the biggest stage in African club football after starter Mohamed Al-Shinnawi and substitute Ali Lotfi were ruled out of the game through injuries.
Shobeir, 23, had played only a handful of matches, all in the Egyptian league and just about all of them meaningless, last season and this year.
But Shobeir, the son of former Ahly and national team goalkeeper and present-day sportscaster Ahmed Shobeir, acted in the true form of like father, like son. Shobeir junior was poised and did not appear affected by the magnitude of the occasion. His biggest test came shortly before Ahly’s first goal when he spread himself wide to block a point blank shot and certain goal by Reda Jaadi.
He also enjoyed a bit of luck when in the 69th minute, Attiyat Allah saw his powerful shot strike the post with Shobeir beaten.
Despite the Wydad goal which Shobeir could do nothing about, he came out unscathed. Good for him because games like this can either make or break careers, young and old. An inept performance by former Ahly goalkeeper Sherif Ikrami in the Champions League final of 2017 — against Wydad — cost him his starting place on the team. In came second string Al-Shinnawi who made the most of the opportunity, all the way up to appearing in the World Cup in Russia the following year.
It will be interesting to see who Ahly’s Swiss coach Marcel Koller will pick for the second leg if Al-Shinnawi is fit.
After the game, the normally subdued Koller, Ahly’s first year coach, was up in arms over the refereeing, especially the blatant mid-field handball that prevented a breakaway.
“This deliberate handball drove me crazy. We had two players clear on target from midfield, and the opposing player intentionally handled the ball. In any competition, on any continent, and in any universe, it is a direct red card. But the referee showed him a yellow card, and the VAR remained silent,” Koller added.
Wydad’s Belgium coach Sven Vandenbroucke called the score for his team “a good result. I am satisfied because it is the best we could get tonight.
“Ahly is a very good team, both physically and technically, but we also delivered a very good performance.
“The return leg will be very difficult, and all options are wide open. We will defend our title, and the fans will play a crucial role in Casablanca.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.