African CL 2018 final preview – Al Ahly v Esperance
Record winners Al Ahly come into this clash as the favourites but they will be well aware that means little in a two-legged affair where stuttering at home can mean a precarious situation in the return leg. They won’t have to look far back to remember to be reminded of that predicament, after a 1-1 draw at home to Wydad Casablanca in last season’s final saw them with the daunting task of having to conjure some magic in Morocco.
Africa’s bring the superior experience with veterans in their midst that have won it before in the shape of Walid Soliman, Ahmed Fathi and Hossam Ashour, and the sheer quality in their ranks. A victory this month would be their first triumph in five years in African club football’s most prestigious prize, and it would leave them just one off their own version of La Decima.
In Esperance’s case, four final defeats in the last 19 years tells the tale of a team which is grand but could have been grander. The Blood and Gold have been buoyed by the fact that the second leg will be on home turf, but they will be conscious of their recent record against Al Ahly. Indeed, their head-to-head record comes with a significant psychological inferiority after the manner Patrice Carteron’s side have turned recent ties on their head.
In last year’s quarter final, Esperance blew away a 2-2 result from the first leg by losing at 2-1 at home, exiting the tournament prematurely. Similarly, and more painfully, a 1-1 draw in the 2012 final first leg was wasted when the Tunisians lost 2-1 in Tunis. Naturally, any positive result in Egypt would still see eagle-eyed Esperance fans to until the final whistle of the second leg.
The Key Battles
Salif Coulibaly v Khalil Chemmam
The signing of Salif Coulibaly in the summer added ready-made quality into the heart of Al Ahly’s defence. The former TP Mazembe centre back has been one of Africa’s best centre backs still based on the continent since the turn of the decade, and he remains at the peak of his game. Chemmam is probably even more of an unsung type.
Khalil Chemmam, meanwhile, has played his entire career with Esperance without getting much adulation in Tunisia (he missed the final cut for the World Cup squad and has failed to hold a regular squad place) or outside of it, but whenever there has been success he has been there. He will need to be at his very best to keep out the likes of Walid Azarou.
Franck Kom v Hossam Ashour
The middle of the pitch will be a hotly contested area, with both midfields coming with a wealth of experience and quality. Franck Kom is one man those in SFG HQ hold as a certified bandiera. An unsuccessful career in Europe hasn’t demeaned the tough-tackling Cameroonian as one of the best midfielders in Africa.
Al Ahly skipper Hossam Ashour may not have flourished at national level but he has squeezed every ounce of his ability at club level. Having played his entire career at Al Ahly, he will be important if Al Ahly are to win the middle battle on Friday night. And if Al Ahly do win the title he will be lauded as a bona-fide club legend.
Walid Soliman v Anice Badri
Soliman was a boyhood Al Ahly fan and he has performed like an ultimate bandiera since signing for the club in 2011. One of the veterans of the team, he has been crucial during this campaign, in many ways performing like a fan of the pitch. After registering an opening goal in the first leg of the semi-final, his opening goal in the second leg was essentially the tie-killer that booked Al Ahly’s ticket to the final.
The Lyon-born attacker has fulfilled his creative duties and gone above and beyond with his goal-scoring ones. Seven goals during this entire campaign, four of them coming from the group stage onwards, sees him sitting at the top of the goalscoring charts. Whatever happens in this tie, he can walk away as one of the best players in Africa this calendar year.
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