CAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL
Africa’s most decorated club side, Al Ahly of Egypt, looks set to stake its pride in the continental club competition when they play host to North African rivals, Esperance of Tunisia in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final.
It is a battle of two of Africa’s oldest club-sides. Al Ahly was founded in 1907 while Esperance had its seeds sowed in 1919.
This is the first time since 2012 that both sides will meet in the final match.. The confrontations of both teams litter the record books of African football. Across all African clubs’ competitions in the past 28 years, both teams have met 18 times with victories tilting more to Al Ahly.
Even this year, they met twice in the group stage. Esperance held Al Ahly to a scoreless draw in Alexandria only to succumb to a lone goal defeat at home in Rades off 32th minute strike from Al Al Ahly’s Walid Azaro.
The ninth time African champion in the elite club competition, Al Ahly comes up against three times winners, Esperance at the 60,000 capacity stadium at the Alexandria’s Borg El Arab.
The host, although favoured to get the result in tonight’s duel but will have to bank on decent form of their veteran winger, Walid Soliman, if they hope to get a convincing win and make the return leg in Tunis less consequential.
Since joining Al Ahly from domestic side ENPPI in 2011, Soliman enjoyed Champions League glory with the club in 2012 and 2013.
He scored the decisive goal in the aggregate 3-2 victory over Esperance when both sides clashed in the 2012 final.
Soliman also won three more CAF titles with the club, namely 2 CAF Super Cups (2013 and 2014) and the 2014 CAF Confederation Cup.
But it’s this year that saw Soliman rising to the elite rank within the Red Devils squad. After seeing legend Mohamed Abu Treika retiring in 2013, Soliman did his job well, but being overshadowed by the likes of Emad Moteab, Abdullah Elsaid and others.
On the road to the final match today, Soliman scored in the second round knock out phase against CF Mounana of Gabon, then missed a penalty in the 2-0 defeat at Uganda’s KCCA that saw Ahly doomed to bottom of their mini league stage group. But since French coach Patrica Carteron arrived, the 33 years old winger proved to be the team’s superstar.
A goal against Horoya of Guinea in the quarterfinals, and two more in both legs against Algeria’s ES Setif in the semis, in addition to two more assists proved Soliman to be the “Top Gun” within Ahly ranks this term.
And he remains the fans favourite as his side prepares to their second successive appearance in the final, hoping to better their runner-ups finish last year.
While the final match comes up from tonight, Nigerians focus will be on Oluwafemi Ajayi, better known as Junior Ajayi who was injured but has now been certified medically fit for the potentially explosive Al Ahly –Esperance clashes.
The Nigerian player had been sidelined for the greater part of the season owing to a rupture in his medial collateral ligament during a fourth round of the Champions League group stage.
But according to Egyptian publication, Kingfut last Sunday, Al Ahly medical team confirmed that Ajayi will return to training sessions after three weeks, assuring that the player’s recovery progress is going well. He may not be in action in the first leg, but could feature in the return leg in Tunisia.
In another development, the Video assistant referees (VAR) will be used for the first this evening.
The system allows off-field referees to assist match officials regarding goals, penalty and straight red card decisions, and mistaken identity when awarding red and yellow cards.
VAR has been used once before in Africa, for the 2018 CAF Super Cup match between Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Apart from a $2.5 million prize, the African champions will qualify for the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, which guarantees at least another $1million for the winners
· An Al Ahly-Esperance meeting is something of a classic in African football. The pair have met 14 times in this tournament, perhaps most memorably is the final in 2012. Esperance returned from Cairo with a 1-1 draw and what seemed like the upper hand, but Al Ahly turned the tables at the Stade Rades to win 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.
· During their previous 14 meetings, draws have been the most common result (six times). Al Ahly have won on five occasions (including three times in Tunis), as have Esperance, with the last of their wins coming in the second leg of the 2011 semi-final.
· Al Ahly will be taking part in their 12th continental final, eight of which they have won. Both of those stats are tournament records. For Esperance, this will be their seventh final. On their previous six attempts, they have triumphed twice and lost four times, the last to none other than Al Ahly.
· Anice Badri (Esperance) and Walid Azaro (Al Ahly) will be also be competing to be this year’s top scorer in the CAF Champions League. Badri leads the way on seven goals, along with two other players no longer in contention, while Azaro is just one back on six. With 180 minutes still to play, both will have time to stake their claim.
· The two teams were drawn together in this year’s group stage. Unsurprisingly, they drew 0-0 in Cairo, while Al Ahly secured a hard-fought 1-0 victory in Tunis, thanks to an Azaro strike.