Machines

Teen machines: Alcaraz looking to join elite Grand Slam club at Roland Garros

There were two continental club finals in the space of 48 hours at the end of last week and the start of this one. Real Madrid won the first, beating Liverpool 1-0 in Paris on Saturday. Then Monday, it was time for the African version.

It wasn’t that different.

Instead of Al-Ahly winning a third straight CAF African Champions League to make history, Wydad AC won Monday’s final 2-0 to clinch their third continental title. Zouhair El-Moutaraji scored a goal each half to delight around 50,000 fans at the Mohammed V stadium in Casablanca.

If Al-Ahly, who have already won the competition 10 times, have been dubbed ‘the Real Madrid of Africa’ – a team that has a special pedigree in the competition – it was the Moroccans who channeled the aura of the giants Spaniards.

“Today we were Real Madrid, not Liverpool. We learned the lesson from Real Madrid’s victory,” Wydad coach Walid Regragui said after the game. The club now equal Raja Casablanca as most successful Moroccan team in the history of the competition.

In Paris, Liverpool may have had more ball but couldn’t make it count. In Casablanca, the Egyptians had plenty of ball possession but struggled to create clean chances against a disciplined and effective defensive performance from Wydad.

“We left the ball to them and we knew they would send balls to Percy Tau, so we focused on controlling him,” added Regragui. “The match was very difficult, but we put in a solid performance and deserved to win.”

Many would agree, but Al-Ahly was unhappy with the choice of Wydad Stadium as the venue for the final, with CAF making the decision between the first leg and the second leg of the semi-finals. Mahmoud Al-Khatib, the chairman of Al-Ahly, appeared to complain to FIFA boss Gianni Infantino ahead of the trophy presentation of the unfair timing of the decision, which was taken when it seemed almost certain Wydad would be finally.

He has a point. While in theory 10,000 tickets were allocated to each group of fans and the rest put on general sale, in practice only a few thousand made the journey from Cairo, with the rest being purchased by Wydad fans. Indeed, it was a home game, and the Moroccan fans created an unforgettable atmosphere – inspiring for their team and intimidating and hostile for Al-Ahly, who should have wished there had been a return match in Egypt. It was no surprise that they seemed a bit shaken at first and quickly found themselves behind.

Al-Ahly boss Pitso Mosimane complained about the whole arrangement.

“I think everyone behind this decision feels happy,” he said. “The better team lost today. When you play on a neutral ground and there is an equal number of supporters between the two teams, then you can talk about winning and losing.

The Cairo club took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but lost, as expected. There was genuine anger over the decision, but maybe the whole situation just got too big in their minds. It could be that, once the dust settles, the focus on complaining about the place will be seen as counterproductive.

To use Liverpool’s example once again, the Reds beat AS Roma in Rome in the 1984 final, and Chelsea triumphed against Bayern Munich in Munich ten years ago. These venues may have been known long in advance and there may have been more English fans present, but playing a single game at the home of the final opponent was not considered so important. Al-Ahly made sure it was a major talking point before it all started.

It remains to be seen what happens to the losers now. They are used to winning in Africa but also know what it is like to get to the final and fail as it is a third place runner-up in the space of six years. There is, at least, plenty to keep the home side busy as they have slipped to third in the league despite having four games in hand against leaders Zamalek due to continental commitments.

The Red Giants have what it takes to close the gap, but there remains the question of coach Mosimane. The South African was on course to make history by becoming the first to win the title three times in a row and only the second to win four in total. Winning in such a hostile environment would have been his greatest achievement yet.

There are reports that Al-Ahly’s board will meet to determine his future, although this has been denied by the club. Former Egyptian players and coach Taha Ismail speaking on TV called for Mosimane’s early departure, blaming the tactician for the loss and a run that saw the club win just one league game in the past of the last five. Whatever Mosimane’s future looks like in the coming weeks, in the long run it should be bright.

Whatever happens, Al-Ahly will be back but for now, it’s Casablanca, not Cairo, that’s celebrating.