Between them, Egyptian club Al Ahly and Esperance de Tunis have won the CAF Champions League eight times - Al Ahly have a record six of those, while the defending champions Esperance have twice lifted the African club crown. On Sunday the two will contest the first of the two-legged final to determine which of the clubs will have bragging rights for a year and, with the winner being granted a place in the FIFA Club World Cup, the stakes are upped considerably.
Fans of Cairo-based Al Ahly are expected to travel to Alexandria in their thousands for the final after Egyptian footballing officials announced that a limited number of fans - expected to be 15,000 - will be allowed entry to the Borg El Arab Stadium in the port city. It will only be the second match in Egypt played in front of fans since the Port Said tragedy in February, during which dozens of football fans died after a game between Al Masry and Al Ahly. Not surprisingly, the tragedy is something that is close to the heart of the Al Ahly players, and they have said they want to win the continental title for their fans who died.
"We'll do our best to win the title and dedicate it to the souls of our fans who lost their lives in Port Said. Along our campaign we were affected negatively by playing behind closed doors, and now that we have our supporters back, they're going to strengthen our side going into such an important fixture", said Egyptian international striker Emad Meteab, adding: "Having our supporters back strengthens us. Definitely this is going to be a very tough game, but all we are thinking about is the trophy. We know well the nature of the encounters between Egyptian and Tunisian clubs. We respect Esperance, but we're not afraid of them."
Al Ahly, who last won the competition in 2008, will be without left back Sayed Moawad, who is suffering from a foot injury. He could though, be back in time for the return leg on 17 November in Tunis. The Red Devils also suffered an injury scare around goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy, who missed a training session earlier in the week, but doctors believe the international will be fit for Sunday's game.
Also available for selection is influential playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika, who missed several games, including the two-legged semi-final, after being suspended by the club. Coach Hossam El Badry will have to decide whether to recall the 33-year-old veteran, as well as midfielder Mahmoud Hassan. The teenager, who is known as Trezeguet has played several games in the competition, but missed the 1-0 victory against Sunshine Stars in the semi-final due to Egyptian U-20 commitments. Striker Mohamed 'Gedo' Nagy, who scored twice in the 3-3 draw in Nigeria and then got the winning goal in the return leg, will be the dangerman up front for Al Ahly.
Bad news in the run-up
Esperance, who are appearing in their third consecutive final, have the competition’s top scorer in their squad, but unfortunately for Taraji fans, Emmanuel Clottey, who scored 12 times in the competition, is cup-tied, having only been signed from Ghana’s Berekum Chelsea in September. The Blood and Gold also will have to deal with the absence of wunderkind Youssef Msakni, who had an emergency appendectomy on Thursday according to the club. The loss of the playmaker is a big blow, and his attack-minded brother Iheb also will miss the first leg through injury, leaving much of the focus up front on Cameroonian Joseph Yannick Ndjeng.
Esperance have not been scoring as freely as coach Nabil Maaloul would like coming into the tie, and they secured their place in the final having tallied just seven goals in their last six Champions League matches. However, the side have proven themselves nothing if not resilient over the last two terms, and Maaloul is confident enough to say that his team will be going for the win in Alexandria. "Despite the strength of Ahly, we will aim for three points," he said before qualifying: "The most important thing in Sunday's match is to avoid conceding goals. This is our target."
Defensive midfielder Houcine Ragued, a Paris-born Tunisian international playing his first season in Africa, added that the allure of representing Africa at the FIFA Club World Cup is a great incentive for the side. "It gives us an extra motivation. Most of the players in the team already played in the FIFA Club World Cup last year. These players told us new players what a great experience it was. Our fans also want us to win the African Champions League so that Tunisia represents Africa at the FIFA Club World Cup.”