Esperance v Al Ahly: A tale of two keepers in African Champions League final

Continental heavyweights set to renew their rivalry in Saturday's first leg

Amanallah Memmiche has enjoyed a stellar rise at Esperance. Photo: X
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Nobody claims the African Champions League without racking up the air miles, and if the competition remains determined to keep its powerbase firmly in one zone, the continent’s north, its leading Arab clubs have weathered difficult journeys to preserve their pre-eminence.

A final that pairs Tunisia’s Esperance with Egypt’s Al Ahly is a match of true heavyweights, a clash of familiars, but both line up for Saturday’s first leg in Rades with significant battle scars.

Not least the hosts of the first leg, an Esperance who came through a taxing semi-final for the right to take on the masters of African club football. It involved a 4,500mile trip to Pretoria, up against the monied South Africans of Mamelodi Sundowns, an expedition across hemispheres and diverse weather systems.

A goal up from the first, Tunisia leg, which had played out on a Mediterranean spring evening, Esperance arrived at a packed Loftus Versfeld stadium to face a formidable record: Sundowns had never lost a Champions League match there.

Not only that, they were then confronted with an autumn highveld storm so violent, play was suspended for an hour. For the Blood and Golds, as Esperance are known, this was ordeal by mud and thunder. And lightning. And torrential rain. And the intricate passing triangles of a Sundowns side easy on the eye and slick in their build-up play.

Into this would be pitched a goalkeeper who had celebrated his 20th birthday less than a week earlier, one who quickly observed that Sundowns’ preferred stadium for major ties, Loftus, has other secrets beyond surprise autumn storms. The bounce of the ball off a surface also used for rugby union and through the thinner air of a high-altitude city can be surprisingly elastic. It very nearly caught out Amanallah Memmiche early on.

But Memmiche kept his composure and went on to produce a stellar performance, consistent with his contributions throughout Esperance’s run to the club’s third Champions League final in seven years. His rise has been meteoric.

A year ago, Memmiche was yet to make a league debut for Esperance, where he had shown promise rising through the youth system but where the first-team gloves had, for well over a decade, belonged to a club legend, Moez Ben Cherifia, and where the succession was earmarked for 24-year-old Mohammed Sedki Debchi.

Debchi’s unconvincing showing last season, not least in the Champions League semi-final defeat to Al Ahly, meant the succession plan was altered.

Memmiche, promoted to the first-team, hardly needed a second invitation to make the Esperance jersey his own. In 11 Champions League matches en route to this final, he has kept 10 clean sheets. Since Sudan’s Al Hilal inflicted a 3-1 defeat on Esperance in the group phase, Memmiche has been through 12 hours of open play, most of them as still a teenager, without conceding.

That includes 180 minutes unbeaten in the all-Tunisian group-phase clashes against Etoile. His record stayed unblemished in some of the toughest venues, like Luanda, against Petro; and Abidjan, where, in the quarter-final against ASEC Mimosas, Memmiche made two saves in the deciding penalty shoot-out.

Come the last four, Memmiche was named man of the match at stormy, high-bounce Loftus. “He’s done a very good job for us,” said Miguel Cardoso, the Portuguese, who, on taking over in January, retained the young goalkeeper in the starting XI and has fashioned a hermetic defensive unit around him. “We know how to put our bodies in the way of bullets, to use a military expression,” said Cardoso.

Up against that, Al Ahly anticipate a harder task than in last year’s meeting, the 4-0 aggregate semi-final victory over an Esperance who found themselves stretched again and again, above all by Al Ahly’s Percy Tau, Africa’s 2023 Inter-Club Player of the Year. Tau has had less consistent impact this season, but remains a key tool for Al Ahly head coach Marcel Koller.

Koller has options up front, among them the January signing Wessam Abou Ali. The Palestinian striker has six goals from his 12 outings since joining from Denmark’s Sirius; his first for his new club in CAF competition was a significant one, Al Ahly’s second goal in the 3-0 victory over DR Congo’s TP Mazembe last month, effectively sealing their place in the final.

Koller will weigh up the case for starting Abou Ali on Saturday against how effective the alternative, the experienced Anthony Modeste, strong in the air and with his back to goal, is likely to be against the tall, powerful Esperance centre-backs Mohamed Amine Tougai and Yassine Meriah.

Another dilemma that has crept into Koller’s in-tray surrounds the goalkeeping position. When Mohamed El Shenawy – Al Ahly captain, veteran of six Champions League finals, three of them as part of the winning side – injured a shoulder at the Africa Cup of Nations in Abidjan in January, the prognosis for his swift recovery was bleak. The bonus was that, like Esperance, Al Ahly came to realise they had an excellent young keeper among the back-ups.

Like Memmiche with Esperance, Mostafa Shobeir grew up with Al Ahly. It could hardly have been otherwise given his family links. His father, Ahmed Shobeir kept goal for Al Ahly through the 1980s and 1990s, winning an African Champions Cup – the club have a record 11 in all – and representing Egypt over one hundred times. Ahmed Shobeir remains a high-profile figure in the game, in the media and public life, long after having hung up his goalkeeping gloves.

A hard act to follow then, as is El Shenawy. But like Memmiche, Shobeir has seized his moment, above all in the continental competition. There’s been a string of agile, reactive saves in his impeccable record of seven matches and seven clean sheets en route to the final.

Koller’s awkward dilemma is that 35-year-old El Shenawy’s recuperation is now complete enough for the Al Ahly skipper to have travelled to Tunis for the first leg. There he may be obliged to watch from the sidelines as two young keepers assume the spotlight, hoping Shobeir, the Cairo tyro, does enough to set up El Shenawy for yet another trophy lift in Egypt a week later.

Updated: May 17, 2024, 6:10 AM