Egyptian outfit Al Ahly go into the Caf Champions League final against Moroccan hosts Wydad Casablanca on Monday thrilled to be on the verge of creating history but furious at the choice of venue.
Ahly are among four teams who have won the marquee African club competition twice in a row since its 1964 debut, but all of them failed when attempting to secure a third straight success.
Having flopped in 2007 and 2014, the Cairo Red Devils have a third chance after victories over fellow Egyptians Zamalek and South Africans Kaizer Chiefs in the previous two title deciders.
But hopes of further glory suffered a huge blow when the Confederation of African Football (Caf) controversially decided to stage the final at the Stade Mohammed V, the home ground of Wydad.
Caf said Morocco and Senegal were the only countries who applied to host the highlight of the African club calendar and the west Africans later withdrew, without offering an explanation.
Angry Ahly officials asked the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – the highest legal body in sport – to force Caf to choose a neutral venue instead, but the appeal failed.
Playing in Casablanca means Wydad will have the backing of about 35,000 supporters in a crowd limited to 45,000 – two thirds of the capacity.
Wydad fans rank among the most passionate and partisan in Africa with their limitless energy enabling them to sing, cheer and dance whenever their heroes have the ball, and boo when opponents have it.
However, South African-born Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane believes Ahly can succeed and win the competition a record-extending 11th time since first conquering the continent 40 years ago.
“I want to win every competition Ahly are involved in. Our millions of supporters expect nothing less,” he told Egyptian media.
Mosimane eyes history
“[Portuguese coach] Manuel Jose had several spells as Ahly coach and achieved a great deal – but he could not win every competition.
“I do not know whether I can surpass him in terms of the number of titles Ahly win, but I am certainly going to try.”
Jose was fortunate to coach the greatest Ahly team of them all – a 2005-08 squad including three Egyptian greats: goalkeeper Essam el Hadary, defender Wael Gomaa and midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika.
Jose holds the coaches’ record for Caf club titles with eight – four Champions Leagues and four Super Cups – and Mosimane lies second with six.
What the Portuguese could not achieve was three Champions League titles in a row, so Mosimane has a chance to create history in Casablanca.
Apart from his two successes with Ahly, the 57-year-old former South Africa forward led Pretoria outfit Mamelodi Sundowns to Champions League glory in 2016.
Wydad and Ahly have clashed five times in Casablanca and honours are even with two victories each and one draw.
The most recent meeting was the 2020 semi-final first leg, won 2-0 by Ahly through goals from Mohamed ‘Afsha’ Magdy and Ali Maaloul.
Tunisian Maaloul, a classy left back with a fondness for pushing forward, is set to start on Monday, but attacking midfielder Magdy could be among the substitutes.
Although six-goal Mohamed Sherif is the leading Ahly scorer in this Champions League campaign, Mosimane usually starts with a strike force of South African Percy Tau, Taher Mohamed and Ahmed Abdel Kader.
France-born Wydad coach Walid Regragui says a tight schedule of domestic and Caf fixtures has led to injuries, but hopes defender Achraf Dari and midfielder Jalal Daoudi will be fit.
Battle-hardened midfielder Yahya Jabrane captains the Moroccan side and a powerful right foot has helped him become the leading scorer for the Red Castle in Africa with five goals.
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