Caf Champions League throws up blockbuster final

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There aren’t too many continental clashes bigger than Al-Ahly and Esperance

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Al-Ahly and Esperance booked their places in the 2018 Caf Champions League final on Tuesday evening, and it’s hard to imagine the continent throwing up a bigger showpiece.

The North African duo enjoy almost unparalleled standing within the African game, and despite troubles earlier in this year’s competition, are arguably the two best teams in the continent today.

This is by no means a vintage Ahly team, and their limitations were exposed earlier in the tournament, as they took just one point from their opening two group-stage matches.

A home draw against their final opponents Esperance in Alexandria back in May wasn’t a dreadful result, but the 2-0 defeat away at new boys KCCA FC was too much for Africa’s Club of the Century.

In came a new head coach—Patrice Carteron—and the Frenchman duly prompted a revival.

He’s got the best out of veteran wideman Walid Soliman, while the signing of Salif Coulibaly has added experience, composure and nous to a backline that was lacking conviction in continental competition.

Since the defeat by KCCA, Ahly have won six, drawn one and lost one in continental competition, and are Africa’s form team.

Patrice Carteron wa TP Mazembe

Esperance have largely struggled to find top form during the campaign to date, but their character has shone through at critical moments.

They ground out results away at KCCA in the group stage, and against domestic rivals Etoile du Sahel in the quarter.

Indeed, it took a late winner from Fousseny Coulibaly away in Sousse to kill off the challenge of ESS and secure passage to the final four.

Here, Primeiro de Agosto represented a notably banana skin, with the Angolan side having dispatched Tout Puissant Mazembe in their Last Eight clash.

Agosto also took the lead in the first leg of their semi against Esperance, with Bua netting an 82nd-minute winner in Luanda.

When Geraldo fired Agosto into an eighth-minute lead in the return match in Rades, Esperance needed three goals in front of their own fans to advance.

They’d reduced the arrears by one goal through Youcef Belaili’s 16th-minute penalty, before Lompala Bokamba restored Agosto’s advantage 26 minutes from time.

Primiero Agosto v Esperance

This left Esperance with a mountain to climb, but that celebrated character—the grinta that has so often given them the edge in continental competition—shone through once again, and late goals from Haythem Jouini and Anice Badri took Esperance into the final.

It’s certainly given the Caf CL final a match-up worthy of the billing.

This is Esperance’s seventh Champions League final, with only Ahly—set to appear in their 12th showpiece—having featured in more.

Between them, they have 10 titles, and have met before in the final.

Indeed, surely revenge will be on the mind of some Esperance players after the Tunisian giants were defeated by Ahly in the 2012 final.

On that occasion, Ahly drew 1-1 at home before defeating Mkachkha 2-1 in Tunisia to inflict a heartbreaking defeat on their regional rivals.

This Esperance team certainly have the character and the talent to avenge that defeat, even if they are a side with rough edges.

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However, Ahly’s ace in the hold might be Carteron, who has firmly enhanced his reputation since taking over at the Egyptian giants, quickly getting a handle on the club, and then guiding them to yet another continental showpiece.

He previously masterminded one of TP Mazembe’s continental successes, and is fast establishing himself as one of the finest club managers to work on African soil over the last decade.

Expect the Frenchman to again be key to another continental success.

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