It’s all or nothing

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 21 May 2024

Following a goalless draw in Rades, Ahly and Esperance must pull out all the stops in Cairo in the final of the African Champions League, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani



Defending champions Ahly of Egypt and former winner Esperance of Tunisia meet on 25 May in a do or die clash for Africa’s biggest football club trophy.

Up for grabs in Cairo will be the African Champions League following a listless 0-0 draw in the first leg in Rades a week earlier.

The first leg enjoyed few highlight reels but had its moments.

As early as the fourth minute and with only Ahly goalkeeper Mustafa Shubeir to beat, Brazilian Rodrigo Rodrigues grazed a cross with a header that was just an inch or two wide of the right post.

In minute 25 Ahly’s Hussein Al-Shahat, playing without a mask following a blow to the face earlier in the campaign, sprung a surprise low shot from outside the area that fizzed wide.

A free kick by Ghayléne Chaaleli in the 40th minute flew tantalizingly close over the Ahly crossbar.

Had the ball arrived slightly lower to defender Yassine Meriah’s head in the 52nd minute it would have been in the goal.

Like Al-Shahat, Ahly midfielder Emam Ashour tried his luck from long range with a similar low-lying effort in the 61st minute.

With three minutes remaining, Al-Shahat combined well with substitute midfielder Magdi Afsha who cleared the way for Al-Shahat’s shot which was smothered easily by keeper Amanallah Memmiche.

But the game rarely lived up to its billing as a fierce continental rivalry between multiple winners, nerves probably holding back the teams from playing free, open football.

Since Ahly came away from Tunisia without being scored upon, they should have the advantage in Saturday’s second and final game at home, especially in what is expected to be a rollicking Cairo Stadium.

But Ahly must be wary of the away goals rule which still stands in African football. Should Esperance score one goal, Ahly will need two of their own to win.

Ahly must also be concerned about the fitness of their veteran Tunisian left back Ali Maaloul who was replaced just five minutes into the match after sustaining an injury.

The two coaches appeared upbeat after game No 1. Ahly’s Swiss coach Marcel Koller said he hoped to win the title which would be a record-extending 12 for the team. “In Cairo, we aim to showcase a distinct performance and capitalise on our home advantage to secure the title,” Koller said.

Esperance head coach Miguel Cardoso of Portugal said his team had a strong chance of clinching the title.

“We still hold favourable prospects in the return leg,” Cardoso said. “We possess players who can make a significant impact.”

Like all good North African rivalries, Ahly and Esperance have shared some titanic battles. In 2012, Ahly claimed the title by defeating Esperance 3-2 on aggregate.

However, in 2018, the Tunisian giants had their moment in the sun when they flipped the script with a 4-3 aggregate win.

On their way to the title last year, Ahly beat Esperance in the semi-finals, winning both legs.

Esperance are going for their fifth title and their first since 2019.

The Champions League winners will receive $4 million in prize money while the runners-up get $2 million, all funded by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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