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2019-20 CAF Champions League Final Preview: Al Ahly (EGY) vs Zamalek (EGY)

Through many delays, the 2019-20 CAF Champions League will conclude with its final on Friday featuring Cairo’s eternal rivals, Al Ahly and Zamalek. Despite the many clashes between the clubs throughout their history, this match will hold special significance because it will be the first CAF Champions League final contested between the two. Due to the occasion, this matchup has been named the “Final of the Century”.

Both teams will be coming in with approximately equal preparation and fitness. Each currently have one or two players who will be absent due to positive Covid-19 tests, but the majority of starters are set to be available and rested. The Egyptian Cup quarter-finals took place last weekend, but both teams implemented many depth players to rest those who took part in Africa Cup of Nations Qualifying. With the situation looking favorable for a strong final, here is a closer look at each team:

Al Ahly

Will Junior Ajayi get his first CAF Champions League trophy on the third attempt?

Path to the Final

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Expected formation and team profile

Al Ahly finished up an excellent season in the 2019-20 Egyptian Premier League, easily clinching the title with only one loss and eight goals conceded. Their only blemishes have been two losses to their upcoming opponents, Zamalek, one in the league and the other in the Egyptian Super Cup, along with a spotty Champions League group stage campaign that ended with them needing a result in Sudan to advance to the knockout round. On October 1, a managerial change resulted in the hiring of highly successful South African manager Pitso Mosimane. Any worries that the change might impact Ahly’s Champions League semi-final duel with Wydad were quickly extinguished following a comfortable 5-1 aggregate victory.

The Reds will have a fully fit defensive unit, with Ayman Ashraf set to be ready after leaving Egypt’s last match against Togo due to injury. He and Yasser Ibrahim will form an experienced pair in the middle of defense. The full-backs, Ali Maâloul and Mohamed Hany, will have the imporant responsibilities to prevent Zamalek from utilizing the wide areas for service to striker Mostafa Mohamed. The two deeper-lying central midfielders, Amr El Soleya and Malian international Aliou Dieng, have a good balance between them. El Soleya brings technical ability while Dieng will attempt to make life miserable for the Zamalek midfield with his ball-winning skill and active nature.

When it comes to Al Ahly’s attackers, it seems there is always one player who is in hot form to bring the others up to a high level. Right now that man for Ahly is Mohamed Magdy “Afsha”. Afsha has been delivering good performances at club and international level lately, and his creative ability will be needed to set up Junior Ajayi and Hussein El Shahat. Ajayi prefers to cut in from the left wing and go for goal, opening up space for the left-back Maâloul to attack. On the other flank, El Shahat has shown quite an eye for goal himself this season, contributing 8 goals between Egyptian Premier League and Champions League action. Up top will likely be Marwan Mohsen. The veteran is never flashy, but will always relish doing the yeoman’s work up top and has an ability to score when it matters. The one concern for Ahly will be the lack of depth in attacking midfield because veterans Walid Soliman and Kahraba will be absent due to Covid-19.

Zamalek

A good performance from Tunisian midfield star Ferjani Sassi will be essential for Zamalek.

Path to the Final

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Expected formation and team profile

Coming into the CAF Champions League semi-final against Raja Casablanca, Zamalek looked a little vulnerable but ended up progressing without too much difficulty. It took a while for the tie to finish up due to Covid-19 related delays, but it seems that the delays helped Zamalek find a groove under new manager Jaime Pacheco. A scoreless draw against Wadi Degla in the Egyptian Premier League in October is the only match Zamalek has failed to win since Pacheco’s appointment.

Mohamed Abou Gamal “Gabaski” has made the starting goalkeeper spot his, starting Zamalek’s last six matches. In front of him, the defensive line is mostly healthy, but suffered a blow this week with the news that center-back Mahmoud Hamdy Al-Wensh tested positive for Covid-19. Mohamed Abdel Ghani should step in, but Al-Wensh’s absence could be a major factor in a tight match. Vice-captain Hazem Emam will likely make his first appearance back from injury at right-back, but youngster Ahmed Eid filled in well and may feature again if Emam is not ready. Mahmoud Alaa will be the leader in the center of the defensive line, bringing strength in the air and a nose for goal on set pieces. Ferjani Sassi and Tarek Hamed are veterans who can contribute defensively as well as offensively from their central midfield positions. Sassi is a big part of why Zamalek are tough to break down regardless of their form.

Achraf Bencharki came through in the semi-finals for Zamalek, and will be needed again against a much stiffer opponent. While Youssef Obama and Ahmed Sayed “Zizo” are a little steadier influences, Bencharki is the only Zamalek attacker who seems capable of producing the spectacular while sacrificing consistency. In order to deliver an optimal performance, the full-backs, Abdallah Gomaa and Hazem Emam, will need to push up and be a factor in attack while not getting caught up in transition. Finally, can Mostafa Mohamed provide the finishing to come up clutch for Zamalek? Mohamed has developed into one of Egyptian football’s best scorers, but he needs service and the team to bring him into the match.

Prediction

I think Zamalek is in the best form they have been in this season, and that will carry them a long way to making the 2019-20 CAF Champions League final very close. However, the talent on Al Ahly is tough to deny, and having a fully healthy defense will give them the slight edge to win over their hated rivals.

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