CAF Champions League final preview: Wydad & Ahly clash in continental showpiece
Moroccan heavyweights Wydad Casablanca and Egyptian giants Al Ahly will clash in the second leg of the CAF Champions League final in Casablanca on Saturday, after the two sides shared a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
The North African duo met in Alexandria last weekend, as Wydad left Egypt with a moral victory, with Achraf Bencharki scoring an away goal to cancel out Moamen Zakaria's third-minute opener.
Both clubs have been cautiously optimistic in the lead-up to the second leg, as they look to cap superb seasons with Africa's most prestigious trophy.
Much of Wydad's success may be attributed to president Said Naciri, a politician, real estate mogul, and one of the figures looking to help make Morocco a bona fide African heavyweight.
When Naciri became president of Morocco's most successful club, the Red Devils of Casablanca had not won a title in four years and had accumulated a debt of 3.6 million euros.
Naciri immediately wiped out the club's debt and forged tight relationships with his players.
Beyond that, the multi-millionaire is now finally being commended for his farsighted decision to appoint Houcine Ammouta as manager.
Ammouta was often the target of ridicule by the local press in the early stages of this year's Champions League campaign.
The 48 year-old was especially reprimanded for the manner in which he set Wydad up away from home: conceding possession, opting for a low block, and relying on his talented forwards to launch lightning quick counter-attacks.
Pitchforks were drawn following losses away to Zanaco and Al Ahly.
The local press questioned whether the Dr. Jekyll home form and Mr. Hyde away form stemmed from Ammouta's lack of courage, and whether the manager possessed the clout to lead Wydad to their first Champions League title in 25 years.
Performances in the knockout stages emphatically silenced his detractors.
In the quarter finals, Wydad shut out reigning champions Mamelodi Sundowns, before soundly defeating USM Alger, and are now on the brink of the club's second Champions League title.
Bencharki, in particular, has been outstanding for the fourteen-time Moroccan champions.
Although he made his name as an attacking midfielder, the Fes native hit a real purple patch as a 'false nine', and has scored five of Wydad's last seven goals in the Champions League and has been rewarded by a call-up with the national team ahead of a crunch World Cup qualifier against the Ivory Coast.
A move across the Mediterranean basin may soon beckon, as Olympique de Marseille reportedly scouted the 23-year-old during the first leg of the final in Alexandria.
For their 'grinta' and nifty attacking midfielders, Wydad have drawn comparisons with the Atletico Madrid of recent years, and if Ammouta has been likened Diego Simeone, his opposite number Hossam El-Badry has been called Al Ahly's Pep Guardiola.
"Some people compare me to Guardiola, because of our similar style of play, mainly depending on ball possession." He stated before the first leg in Alexandria [as per AfricanFootball.com].
Such comparisons should be taken with a handful of salt, but they are an indication of the monumental impact El-Badry has had on Africa's Club of the Century.
Employing El-Badry's possession-based style, Al Ahly won the Egyptian Premier league undefeated last year and set a new clean-sheet record. The Cairo giants even won the Egyptian Cup for the first time since 2007.
Unfortunately for the record-holding eight-time champions, they will be without Ali Maaloul, their marauding Tunisian left-back, who is instrumental in helping Al Ahly maintain width while attacking.
In addition to Maaloul, Al Ahly cannot call on defensive midfielder and captain Hossam Ashour, who has not played in more than a month with a thigh strain.
Ashour and nine others remain from the side that defeated Orlando Pirates in the 2013 Champions League final.
Ahly can call on the likes of Ahmed Fathy, who has amassed 120 caps for the Egyptian national team and Emad Moteab, who has played fifteen seasons with Al Ahly.
The travelling side will need to draw on every ounce of experience to compensate for their injury woes and upset Wydad in their own backyard.
With little to separate the duo on the scoreboard, and with Wydad supporters notorious for whipping up a volcanic atmosphere, the second leg of the final promises to live up to the occasion, as the duo battle for the grandest club prize in the continental game and the opportunity to represent Africa at the Club World Cup.