16.05.2024 08:00 h

Esperance, Ahly resume great African club rivalry in final

Episode 23 of a great African club rivalry unfolds in Tunisia on Saturday when Esperance host Egyptian visitors Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League final first leg.

Ahly have won 10 and drawn eight of their 22 meetings in the premier continental competition since first clashing 34 years ago, and are appearing in a record fifth straight final.

But while the Cairo Red Devils are favourites to lift the trophy a record-extending 12th time after an unbeaten 12-game march to the title decider, Esperance have also impressed.

The Blood and Gold are back in the final for the first time since completing back-to-back Champions League triumphs in 2019 and, like Ahly, boast a formidable defence.

"Every Champions League opponent raises their game against Ahly. We are the most successful club in Africa so everybody wants to beat us," Swiss coach Marcel Koller told reporters.

Ahly have won 24 African titles in four competitions, 13 more than their closest rivals, compatriots Zamalek and TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Both finalists have kept 11 clean sheets in 12 qualifying, group and knockout matches, with goalkeepers Mostafa Shobeir of Ahly and Amanallah Memmiche of Esperance the unexpected stars.

A son of former Ahly goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir, Mostafa was promoted after captain Mohamed El Shenawy suffered a shoulder injury during the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations.

Shobeir rose to the occasion and has not conceded in six Champions League matches, leaving Koller with a selection headache.

Does he continue with Shobeir or recall fit-again El Shenawy after both were included in a 23-man squad?

Esperance began this Champions League campaign with veteran goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia captaining the side, but he has dropped to the bench with 20-year-old Memmiche preferred.

Promoted when a teenager, Memmiche has not conceded in his last eight Champions League matches as Esperance seek a fifth title.

Where Ahly have a clear advantage over Esperance is scoring, netting 19 goals en route to the final compared with a meagre nine by their rivals.

There have been contributions from 11 players to the Ahly total with Hussein El Shahat (five) and Mahmoud Kahraba (four) the leading scorers.

Despite topping the Champions League goals chart, however, El Shahat was an unused substitute in the 3-0 semi-final, second-leg victory over Mazembe.

South African winger Percy Tau will hope to add to his solitary goal in the African campaign this season.

A returnee to the Ahly squad is Mali midfielder Aliou Dieng, back in contention after a three-month absence due to a knee injury.

Esperance coach Miguel Cardoso says reaching the final is the "biggest achievement of my career". He previously struggled at clubs in France, Spain, Greece and his native Portugal.

He took over this January after two Tunisians, 2018 and 2019 Champions League winner Mouin Chaabani and Tarek Thabet, had short spells in charge.

Yan Sasse, plucked from the obscurity of Wellington Phoenix reserves in New Zealand, has scored three Champions League goals, but fellow Brazilian Rodrigo Rodrigues has yet to get off the mark.

Other potential starters include centre-back Mohamed Tougai and winger Houssam Ghacha from Algeria and Togo midfielder Roger Aholou.