Wydad upend Ahly’s quest

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 31 May 2022

The Moroccan giants upended defending champions Ahly of Egypt to win the African Champions League, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Ahly s hopes in claiming an 11th title were dashed on Moroccan soil
Ahly s hopes in claiming an 11th title were dashed on Moroccan soil

Zouheir El Moutaraji scored a goal in either half as Wydad Casablanca beat reigning champions Ahly of Egypt 2-0 to win their third African Champions League amid euphoric scenes in Mohamed V Stadium on Monday night.

The victory prevented Ahly from an unprecedented three straight African titles and stopped their overall tally at 10 crowns, already a record.

Wydad had the upper hand in the early stages as a rocket launched by Congo-Brazzaville striker Guy Mbenza from just outside the area blasted off the bar in the 10th minute.

That was the warning served. Just four minutes later El Moutaraji, who missed the second leg of the semi-final against Petro de Luanda due to suspension, unleashed a cannon from 30 yards out which a diving Mohamed Al-Shinnwai could do nothing about.

Ahly picked up the pace in the half and were unlucky as two glazing headers by Yasser Ibrahim and Taher Mohamed narrowly missed.

Though Ahly enjoyed 68 per cent ball possession in the opening half, they would rue those missed chances when after just two minutes into the second half El Moutraji, inexplicably left unguarded by Mohamed Hani, sprinted in ahead of the unbeknownst defender, his initial shot parried away by Al-Shinnawi but not far enough before El Moutraji slammed in the rebound.

The rest of the game belonged to Wydad goalkeeper Ahmed RedaTagnaouti who made a diving catch of a shot by substitute Magdi Afsha, prevented a toe poke going in by Salah Mohsen and dived at the feet of South African striker Percy Tau in the area.

Wydad had been crowned African Champions in 1992 and 2017 — beating Ahly that second time when the final was a two-legged affair.

On Monday they had home advantage which was a hotly disputed issue just weeks before the final. Ahly had protested that the match was to be played in Casablanca, arguing it gave an unfair advantage to Wydad. The African football body CAF retorted that Morocco was the only bidder after Senegal had pulled out.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) made it official just four days before the final, rejecting Ahly’s request that the game be postponed and moved to a neutral site.

The home advantage perhaps had a hand in the defeat as Ahly looked jaded at times in the face of raucous but relatively orderly Wydad spectators.

Before the final, North African clubs had dominated the competition in recent years — winning nine of the past 11 titles. This year’s final was the fifth all-North African affair in the past six seasons.

Wydad’s win also burst the personal bubble of Ahly’s South African coach Pitso Mosimane who had confidently pronounced before the game that Ahly were in Morocco “to win the Champions League”. A win over Wydad would have pushed him level with Ahly’s former coach, Manuel Jose of Portugal, on four Champions League crowns, a continental record.

Not for the first time, Mosimane was not gracious in defeat, blaming the loss of the Champions League, the most coveted club football title in Africa, on “abnormal circumstances”.

“The best team today is the one who lost,” Mosimane, who led Ahly to back-to-back Champions League crowns, told a post-match news conference.

“We can only talk about winning or losing when we play on a neutral ground and when both sides have an equal number of fans. I think those who were behind this decision are happy today,” referring to CAF’s decision to stage the one-off match in Casablanca.    

In truth, the loss mirrored, and was but an extension, of Ahly’s recent poor form and results in the Egyptian football league. Though they will be at the top of the standings if they win all their postponed matches, at mid-season they have yet to put together any meaningful string of high-quality games as they seek to topple cross-town rivals Zamalek who pipped them to the league crown last season after a seven-year headlock on the trophy.

After the match, Wydad coach Walid Regragui said his team resembled Real Madrid, not Liverpool.

Regragui said before the game that Ahly are the “African Real Madrid”. After the game: “We were Real Madrid, not Liverpool. We learned the lesson from Real Madrid’s win,” he said in a pitch-side interview.

Regragui was referring to Liverpool’s domination, yet Real Madrid’s 1-0 win, of the Champions League in Paris on Saturday.

Liverpool’s bid to claim the Champions League trophy for the seventh time ended in bitter disappointment as Vinicius Jr’s second-half winner gave Real Madrid their 14th victory in the tournament, double that of second place AC Mlan.

Real and Wydad will be playing in this year’s FIFA Club World Cup after they both qualified as their continent’s representatives.

Liverpool, meanwhile, lost out on their chase of a historic quadruple, collecting the FA Cup and Carabao Cup but missing out on the more prestigious Champions League and Premier League.

The victory in Paris, to be remembered for starting nearly 40 minutes late due to crowd problems that needed pepper spray as fans with fake tickets and local youths tried to force their way into the stadium, also saw Real coach Carlo Ancelotti do what Mosimane could not: make history by becoming the first coach to win a fourth Champions League title.

Egypt’s Liverpool star Mohamed Salah, who said before the final that his team had a score to settle with the Spanish side after Liverpool lost to them in the 2018 final, was denied six times by Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who was simply impenetrable.

Salah suffered a season of big international losses as well after Egypt lost in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations and failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup in Qatar. His one bright spot was he and Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-Min becoming joint winners of the Premier League’s Golden Boot award with 23 goals.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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