Ahly, Esperance boast surprise stars ahead of final showdown

Marwan Attia (L) of Al Ahly challenges Ghaylene Chaalali of Esperance during the first leg of the 2024 CAF Champions League final in <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Tunisia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Tunisia</a>. (Fethi Belaid)

CAF Champions League finalists Al Ahly of Egypt and Esperance of Tunisia boast amazing defensive records ahead of the second leg in Cairo on Saturday, with goalkeepers Mostafa Shobeir and Amanallah Memmiche the unexpected stars.

Shobeir has not conceded in eight Ahly appearances, including the 0-0 draw in the first leg of the title decider last weekend, since replacing injured captain Mohamed el Shenawy.

El Shenawy, rated among the best shot-stoppers in Africa, was available for the encounter in Tunisia, but sat on the bench with Swiss coach Marcel Koller keeping faith in Shobeir.

Shobeir is a 24-year-old son of former Egypt international Ahmed Shobeir, one of many great goalkeepers produced by record 11-time Champions League winners Ahly, including Essam el Hadary.

Mostafa Shobeir was superbly protected by Mohamed Hany, stand-in captain Ramy Rabia, Mohamed Abdelmonem and Karim Fouad, with Esperance failing to get a single goal attempt on target.

Substitute Fouad was introduced after only seven minutes when veteran Tunisian international full-back Ali Maaloul limped off.

The rise of Memmiche, who celebrated his 20th birthday last month, was equally meteoric as he understudied captain Moez Ben Cherifia when Esperance began their campaign last September.

Memmiche and veteran Ben Cherifia swapped roles for the return qualifier against Douanes from Burkina Kaso and he has been the first choice since.

The Tunisian has kept 11 clean sheets in 12 Champions League matches and comfortably dealt with a shot from leading Ahly scorer Hussein el Shahat -- the lone first-leg goal attempt on target.

His only blemishes came at the group stage against Al Hilal, who beat him three times in a match moved to Tanzania because of the armed conflict in Sudan.

One of the goals he conceded came from a penalty and another was a Yassine Meriah own-goal. A yellow card completed a rare miserable outing for Memmiche.

- 'Equal chances' -

Meriah and fellow defenders Mohamed Ben Ali, Algerian Mohamed Tougai and Amine Ben Hamida have been near ever presents in the Esperance African campaign this season.

Most African football pundits believe the goalless first leg confirms Ahly as favourites to win a record-extending 12th Champions League title in 17 final appearances.

But Koller, who is chasing an eighth Egyptian or African trophy since joining the African titans two years ago, disagrees ahead of a second leg set to be watched by a sell-out 75,000 crowd.

"Ahly and Esperance have equal chances of success. We may have more experienced African campaigners, but only what happens on the pitch counts," he told reporters.

"I do not view the final as two matches, but rather 180 minutes of football in Rades and Cairo. Naturally, our goal is to win at home and retain the title.

"Concentration will be a key factor. One slip could prove decisive between two evenly matched sides."

After a tough time as a manager in Europe, including just four matches with AEK Athens before being sacked, Portuguese Miguel Cardoso has been much more successful as Esperance coach.

Not only are they in the final of the premier African club competition, but well placed to win the Tunisian championship a record-extending 33rd time.

"We were unable to capitalise on our chances in the first leg. Hopefully, it will be a different story this Saturday," he said.

"It was disappointing not being able to exploit home advantage and the backing of fantastic supporters, but this final is far from settled."

Tradition favours Ahly as only two of 10 previous Champions League finalists held 0-0 at home in a first leg went on to lift the trophy.