There is plenty at stake when Orlando Pirates take on Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the home leg of the CAF Champions League in Soweto's Orlando Stadium on the outskirts of Johannesburg on Saturday. Not only will the winner of the two-legged tie be crowned continental champions and pick up the major prize money that goes with the title, they will also earn the right to represent the continent at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in December.
Defending champions Al Ahly have won the event a record seven times, while Pirates remain the only Southern African side to have won it, which they did in 1995. Neither of the two clubs had an easy passage into the final, with Al Ahly only advancing past Cameroon's Coton Sport in the semi-finals via a penalty shoot-out after both games ended 1-1. Pirates prevented a repeat of last year's final when they secured the decisive goal at Esperance to go through on the away-goal rule. Al Ahly and Pirates already met in the group stage of the competition, with the South Africans inflicting a rare home defeat on the Cairo club, winning by a stunning 3-0 scoreline. The reverse fixture, which the Buccaneers could not afford to lose if they wanted to advance to the semi-finals, ended in a goalless draw.
Pirates have struggled to find the net at home against strong opposition in the competition, being held to goalless draws against AC Leopards, Al Ahly and Esperance, and even though their away form has managed to carry them through to this stage of the competition, they will be looking to carry a lead to the return leg in Cairo a week later. Both teams have an array of international stars in their squad with Egyptian internationals like Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Naguib, Ahmed Fathi and Mohamed Aboutrika looking to overcome the disappointment of losing the first leg of their FIFA World Cup play-off against Ghana 6-1. For Aboutrika, who has announced his retirement at the end of the season, the Champions League and potential place in the Club World Cup offer what would seem to be his last chance to parade his skills on the world stage.
Pirates have some injury worries ahead of the game with Siyabonga Sangweni and Patrick Phungwayo out. The situation of captain Lucky Lekgwathi, who has missed all of Pirates' matches since the 0-0 draw with Al Ahly in September for unspecified reasons, remains unclear. Goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa, who has been in outstanding form for the club this season, says he does not think they have an advantage because they have had success against the Cairo club this term. “We must respect Ahly and approach the game as if it was our first time playing against them. Ahly have proven over the years how great a team they are and for this reason we cannot – for one minute – think that the final against them will be a walk in the park.”
The Red Devils arrived in South Africa at the start of the week and coach Mohamed Youssef had his first training session with the team on Tuesday. The 43-year-old said that the two matches they have already played against Pirates had no bearing on the final. "There is a significant difference between the group phase and the final match. In the group, we could recover by finishing in second place and still qualify. However, there is no such chance in the final, so we must achieve a positive result in the first leg which will help us in the return leg."
Player to watch
The son of Egyptian goalkeeping legend Ekramy El Shahat, Sherif Ekramy took some time to convince Al Ahly fans that he was as good as his father after returning to the club following a largely unsuccessful stint in Europe with Feyenoord and Ankaragucu. In the Orlando Stadium, much will be asked from the 30-year-old, who picked up an injury in Egypt's 6-1 defeat in Ghana, but should be fit to play in the final, which will afford him the opportunity of overtaking the one Champions League title his father won.
3 - The number of goals that Orlando Pirates have conceded at home in the competition in the seven matches they have played. Zambia's Zanaco lost 2-1 in South Africa, while former champions TP Mazembe and Zamalek also scored once in defeats.
What they said
"I believe keeping a clean-sheet is important. When you’re at home, it’s important not to concede, but if you do concede you have to get on with it and score even more goals. It’s important that we keep it tight. If we can go to Egypt with something in the bag, then we have a chance," Pirates coach Roger De Sa.
Have your say
Can Pirates deny Al Ahly an eighth title or will the Red Devils successfully defend their crown?