Holders Al Ahly are favourites to continue their remarkable dominance of the African club game on Saturday evening as they face South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs in Morocco.
The Egyptians are looking to win a record-extending tenth African crown against a side in their first final and trying to overcome poor domestic form.
Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane is expecting a tough clash in Casablanca against the team from his home nation.
“Their strength is on crosses, set pieces and they’ve got big boys, so that’s what Chiefs are doing,” said the South African, who has already won the trophy twice as coach.
“Chief are not too much of a ball-playing team, they keep it safe behind and (try to) use one chance to score. Ball possession doesn’t win you games, you know, so that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Ahly are in a record 14th final, and fifth in the last decade, which is in marked contrast to their South African opponents.
If the Cairo giants win, they will have double the number of titles achieved by Africa’s next best clubs – city rivals Zamalek and DR Congo’s TP Mazembe.
Chiefs’ solitary continental triumph came 20 years ago in the now-defunct African Cup Winners’ Cup.
Now they have reached the biggest game of their 50-year history at the end of, ironically, one of their worst ever seasons, hoping to end an unprecedented run of six years without any silverware.
They plummeted to uncharted domestic depths, finishing eighth in the Premier Soccer League – 31 points behind champions Mamelodi Sundowns.
At the start of the season, there was much expectation at the arrival of coach Gavin Hunt, who boasted four South African titles with two modest clubs.
Despite inheriting an ageing squad, he was unable to recruit new players after Chiefs received a one-year transfer ban from Fifa after a botched deal involving Madagascar’s Andriamirado ‘Dax’ Aro Andrianarimanana.
Despite the domestic struggles, including losing at home to second-tier opposition in the first round of the cup, Chiefs managed to squeeze through every stage of the Champions League.
They squeaked through their group in second place thanks to a better head-to-head record over Guineans Horoya before almost throwing away a 4-0 first-leg lead over Tanzania’s Simba in the quarter-finals as they lost the return 3-0.
That defeat was one of the catalysts for Hunt’s firing, just before the semi-final against Wydad Casablanca when recent appointee Baxter could not sit on the bench owing to work permit issues.
But they made it through 1-0 on aggregate after a smash-and-grab win in Morocco, followed by a 0-0 draw in Johannesburg where they did not concede once in this year’s Champions League.
“Ahly will be devastated if they don’t beat us, but our players certainly think there is a scenario where we can beat them,” said Baxter. “We are hoping to just be better than they think we are.”
Al Ahly, meanwhile, are in good form and unbeaten in their 11 games.
They have lost just two league matches this season and sit second in the table, trailing Zamalek by 10 points but with four games in hand.
The Egyptians will be led by in-form forward Mohamed Serif, who has eight goals in seven matches, including two last Sunday as Ahly beat Misr Lel Makasa 4-1.
Their Champions League defence began with a comfy 5-0 aggregate win over Niger’s AS SONIDEP but had to settle for second place in Group A behind Tanzania’s Simba, who beat Ahly 1-0 in Dar-es-Salaam.
In the quarter-finals, Mosimane orchestrated a 3-1 aggregate win over Sundowns – who he led to African glory in 2016 – before making light of a tricky semi-final with a 4-0 win over Tunisia’s 2019 African Champions Esperance.
“We have players who are hungry and who want to write their own history – they say they want their own pictures lifting the Champions League, so it means a lot for us,” said Mosimane.
Ahly’s first success in the tournament came almost 40 years ago when the competition was known as the Champions Cup.
Goalkeeper Mohmed El Shenawy is one of six Ahly players who will head directly after the game to Tokyo as part of Egypt’s Olympic football squad.