After navigating tough tests in the semi-final, RS Berkane of Morocco and Egypt’s SC Zamalek are set to slug it out in the final of the Caf Confederation Cup, with the first leg on Sunday.
The Moroccan outfit mounted an amazing comeback against CS Sfaxien in the last round, having lost the away fixture 2-0 at the Stade Taieb Mhiri on April 28. Showing grit and determination, they roared back at the Stade Municipal a week later to win 3-0 and progress 3-2 on aggregate.
Early goals from Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba and Omar Nemssaoui in the first 20 minutes of the encounter brought them level on aggregate, before Burkina Faso's Issoufou Dayo netted just after the half-hour mark to send them ahead on home turf.
Berkane have had a magnificent run in the competition, and are appearing in their first ever final on the continent. The Oranges’ progress is further amplified when it’s considered that they were still playing second division football seven years ago until promotion to the Moroccan Championship in 2012.
Their impressive run to the final was unforeseen too and, at this stage, have to be treated with the utmost respect.
They have been near unstoppable at the Stade Municipal throughout the tournament, winning six and drawing one of their seven home fixtures, with 21 goals scored and a meagre three conceded.
Fo-Doh Laba, Berkane’s top scorer in the competition, has netted seven times for the Oranges, and Zamalek will have to be wary of the Togolese forward’s threat if they’re to stop the rampant Moroccans from securing a positive result in the first meeting.
In the away end are Christian Gross’ Zamalek, who had to battle tooth and nail in the final four to see off Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel.
After a Mahmoud Kahraba strike helped the Royal Club to a 1-0 victory at the Borg El Arab Stadium, a goalless draw in Tunisia on May 5 saw the Egyptian giants progress 1-0 on aggregate.
The aforementioned draw did come at a cost though, with Gross’ first-choice shot-stopper Mahmoud Abdel Rahim receiving his marching orders for a second bookable offence in stoppage time, which will rule him out of the game in Morocco.
To worsen the situation for Gross, the White Knights’ stand-in goalie, Emad el Sayad is out through injury, so the club’s third-choice goalkeeper Omar Salah will start.
Given the Egyptian outfit only registered three goalkeepers for the competition, they face the unwanted prospect of an outfield player replacing Omar between the posts in the event of an injury or red card.
"It is far from an ideal situation having only one goalkeeper going into a match," Gross acknowledged to SuperSport, "but I have absolute confidence in Omar (Salah) and believe he will be a worthy replacement with Mahmoud banned and Emad injured.
"I hope we do not face a situation during the match where Omar (Salah) has to be replaced as it would mean someone who does not normally feature as a goalkeeper wearing the gloves."
The Swiss coach is hoping to become the second Swiss coach, after Michel Decastel with Sfaxien in 2007, to win the continent’s secondary club competition.
For Zamalek, victory in the completion will take their tally of continental trophies to double figures.
While Berkane have a strong record in front of their fans, the fact that the Royal Club haven’t lost on their travels since a 4-2 defeat by Gor Mahia in early February shows the strength they possess on their travels.
In fact, that loss in Kenya was the last they suffered in the competition – with a 2-0 defeat by AS CotonTchad in December their only other defeat – and they head into the encounter at Stade Municipal with a nine-game unblemished run, a streak that’s seen them keep seven successive clean sheets.
The encounter in Morocco will see the home side’s goal hungry attack try to break down a watertight defence in an attempt to gain the advantage heading into the reverse fixture in Egypt a week later.
History will be made, whoever comes out on top, as Berkane are chasing their first continental title. Zamalek, on the other hand, may have secured five Caf Champions League crowns, but they’ve never tasted success in the Confederation Cup.